First, let me apologize- my last blog post was inadequate. I got lazy. I sold you short on my writing and tried to make up for it with pictures. Pictures are nice, I’m sure, but they lack the commentary which I’m sure is important to many of you. I have since gone back and revised that post to add more pictures but mostly make it more detail-rich. It should show up revised below. I’ve also tried not to lack in detail for this post. For those of you who don’t care to read so much, there are still some good pictures and captions and you can skim the rest. Or not even that if you don’t want.
I mentioned before that while we were in Buenos Aires we met a lot of people. One of those people was Kyle Mapp. Karl originally met Kyle through the Couch Surfers network, and we in turn met him through Karl. Not to give you his life story or anything, but Kyle lives in Buenos Aires and teaches English. Most of the companies he teaches for have February as all holiday and there are no students to teach. While we were hanging with him in BA we told Kyle about our plan to head south and explore Patagonia. As it turned out, Kyle was trying to make similar plans for his time off. While we were in El Calafate, Kyle flew down and joined us. It took a bit of time for him to get his bag that the airline lost (which had the sleeping pads we planned to use while backpacking in it), but once he did we were ready to trek hard. For the rest of the time Kyle spent with us, we lived by the Trekker’s Code: Pack Heavy, Sleep Light, Travel Fast, Trek HARD. It’s sort of an ongoing joke we had to keep our trekking adventures lighthearted and to poke a little bit of fun at the people we thought were taking the whole trekking lifestyle far too seriously. It probably doesn’t make much sense out of context, but I just couldn’t tell you about Kyle Mapp without telling you about the Trekker’s Code.
We left El Calafate, crossed the Chilean border, and made it to the small town of Puerto Natales- the stop everyone has to make on their way to Torres del Paine National Park, the ‘trekking capital’ of Chile. In Natales we stayed at what we ended up calling ‘Grandma Susan’s house’. It was one of the cleanest, most hospitable hostels anyone of us had ever been in and the woman running the place, Susan, was a much older lady from New Zealand who thanked us for ‘being good boys’ when we left. But really, what made it seem like grandma’s house more than anything was the breakfast. Now, I realize that our judgement on what exactly constitutes a good breakfast may have been skewed in the last month or so. Usually we just stuff our faces on free hostel breakfasts, which consist of bread and jam, tea or instant coffee, and cheap corn flakes if we’re lucky. We don’t seem to have many options though (other than preparing our own, which we rarely do) because no one here ever eats much more than that standard for breakfast. No one, that is, but people who stay at Grandma Susan’s house. No, at Grandma Susan’s house you are very well fed every morning with homemade bread topped with adequate butter and homemade jam, oatmeal covered in homemade granola, well-salted scrambled eggs and brewed coffee or a choice from an array of teas. That is the breakfast we were filled up with the day we began our first big trek. Seems great, right? And at the time it was, we were very thankful for it, but for 6 days after that, while we were backpacking in Torres, our taste buds and stomachs were haunted by the memories of the breakfast we started on.
Part of the reason we got so much enjoyment from poking fun at the people who we thought were taking the trekking too seriously was that it made us feel better about the fact that we were certainly not nearly taking it seriously enough. While in Natales, we went to a talk about how to be prepared specifically for the trek we were planning (called ‘the W’). I gave up writing down all the suggested gear that we didn’t have because I ran out of room. Of course the place giving the free talk was also renting over priced gear, so we thought that was a bit of a conflict of interest when listening to their advice. Plus, we were trying to trek as cheaply as we could. Among the things we lacked: sleeping bags (Kyle got the cheapest one he could in BA and John, Karl and I rented one to share between us), pots and pans, a camp stove, trekking poles, hiking boots, and plenty others. We had the cheapest sleeping pads Kyle could find in Buenos Aires, the tent we bought when we didn’t have a hostel reservation in Uruguay (a 4-person tent, but with none of us being shorter than 6 feet and Kyle upwards of 6’7″ we filled that thing to the brim- which is really what we hoped would keep us warm more than anything), a few tupperware containers and water bottles, a camera, and all the clothes layers we could carry. Karl didn’t even have a proper backpack. Then we went to the store and bought a bunch of food that didn’t need to be cooked (no stove or pans). It was the repeated tuna and granola dinners that made us miss Grandma Susan’s breakfast so badly (and really any other food we could think of- and there was a lot of thinking about food).
It was about a 2.5 hour bus ride from Natales to the park. Then we had to take a ferry across a lake to get to our first trailhead. After that it was basically mountain peak after glacier after mountain valley- each more stunning than the last. As unprepared as we seemed, I will say that looking back we did the trip perfectly for us. We were willing to sacrifice eating well so that we didn’t have to carry a stove and fuel and clean pots and pans after breakfast. Crackers and jam and cereal bars worked. We were comfortable enough layering clothes and sleeping in that to not have to rent and carry a sleeping bag for everyone. Indoor soccer shoes, and what came to be called Epic Trekking Sandals and vans had plenty of support for us. We were able to travel lighter and easier and the load got more and more easy to handle as the trip went on.
We did 5 nights and 6 days in the park, twice staying two nights at the same campsite so we could have full days to explore the beauty of the area and so that we didn’t have to carry all of our gear while we did. All throughout the park there were refugios, which were basically highly over priced hostels and places where you could pay to camp. These places were always conveniently located about an hour or two climb before the free campgrounds. We’re pretty proud that we never broke down and stayed at any of them. Nor did we buy food at any of them. We set out to do it all for free after buying food and paying for the park entrance and we did it, which was pretty awesome.
The natural beauty seemed to be nonstop once we entered the park, but there were certainly noteworthy spots. At the very end of the first day we ended up on a high ridge above a valley filled with a beautiful lake and glacier. There were other mountain valleys in the background lit by the sun in such a way that made them seem divine. Another perk of not having a stove or cooking our food was that we weren’t tied to our campsite for meals. We ate our tuna dinner on the ridge covered in dry grass without a care in the world. No doubt one of the most amazing views any of us have ever witnessed.
Unfortunately, the pictures don’t quite capture what it felt like to be standing there- that’s why we went. My descriptions of the views are probably inadequate as well. So take both with a grain of salt and try to imagine what the pictures show and what I’m describing, but with your mind totally getting blown.
After the first day we back tracked to where the boat dropped us off (because we started at like the bottom left point of the W shape). Back where the boat dropped us we rested for a bit with a beautiful view to keep us company.
Then we hiked to what was sort of the base of the center of the W. There we made camp. The next day we took only day packs and sped through what was called “the French Valley”- stopping once because we were awestruck by the glaciers on one of the mountain faces having avalanches about every 10 to 15 minutes. Then when we got to the end of the line in the French Valley, we were feeling a little ambitious and just kept climbing. We got up and out of the tree line- into an area where nothing could grow actually- and finally found a place where we were happy with the view. Literally getting water directly from glaciers and skiing down them in epic trekking sandals, the whole 360 degree view around us was absolutely incredible.
The next day was the toughest of all because it was the longest distance to the next free campground and the hike had the fewest awe-striking moments to enjoy while we hiked. It was alright though, once we got there we had another 2 nights to relax and another day off of carrying our packs.
One of the most informative parts of the talk we went to in Puerto Natales was that we were told the things that were not to be missed during the circuit. One of those things was that at the final free campground on the circuit, if you get up before sunrise and do an hour long hike in the dark, all up hill on shifty rocks, gravel and sand, you can enjoy the sunrise on the Torres del Paine. They only glow for about 15 minutes or so, but all the work in the dark was supposed to be well worth it. Of course we didn’t miss it, and the guy was absolutely right, it was completely worth the work. There was a train of people, all camping at that campground, all with flishlights and all struggling to get up the hill. It was freezing at the top because of the piercing wind, but the view was spectacular.
Part of the reason we were able to get away with being so unprepared, aside from the fact that we are all super hardcore, manly trekkers, was that we got extremely lucky with the weather. We didn’t realize it at the time, but once we got back we found out that a heat wave was sweeping through Torres del Paine at just about the same time we were. Everyday the sun was shining, the sky was clear, and any wind or rain that did come perfectly cooled us off from all the hard trekking. We did a lot of hiking in shorts and t-shirts. The only day that was overcast and cold was the day before the last day and we didn’t plan to do much that day anyway. We did a little hike to see some more stuff that wasn’t as popular to check out (mostly just a fairly popular camp for climbers intent on reaching the peak of the torres). Other than that we just relaxed and ate the last of our food.
On the last day we walked the rest of the W and an extra hour and a half or so to avoid having to pay for the shuttle back to the bus which took us back to Puerto Natales. In all we calculated that the way we did the W circuit took us around 111 km (around 66 miles). We were very satisfied with how we pulled it off with so little gear and expense. The weather helped.
Once back in Puerto Natales we got a bus back to Argentina where we continued trekking, but this time in Argentina’s trekking capital- El Chalten. Details and pictures of our adventures there will be in the blog post to come. For now, thanks for being patient and thank you for reading. We all send our love and best.