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Hiking the "O" Torres del Paine Part I

As I tossed and turned, I couldn’t stop thinking about what our friend Medi had said about the “O” hike he just completed in Torres del Paine, Chile.

“You don’t have vertigo do you?” He asked.

“There are a few suspension bridges that are about 50 meters high, and also a water crossing where you will get pretty wet. Heck, just plan on being wet, my Gore-Tex was soaked through and my phone is still in rice. And, the wind…” he continued. “I’m a pretty big guy and I just had to sit down at times when the wind was so strong that it was blowing me off of the trail. I’ve never been in winds like that.”

I regretted asking him for details because now I would have a couple of days to worry about something that I can’t change.

Actually, I’m okay with high swinging bridges. My problem is with suspension bridges that are old and rickety and missing boards. Unfortunately, that describes every suspension bridge that we have crossed in South America. Would the bridges in Torres be any different?

My mind continued to race as I began checking off everything on my mental check list. I rolled over and it was now 2:00 a.m. I needed to sleep as the alarm was set for 5:30 and we had a long ten hour hike the first day.

I was still mad at Ol after finding out that he had sent his titanium camping cup home with the kids at Christmas. He sent it home two weeks before we would finally be using it! Who carries hiking gear around for 4 months only to send it home right before a hike?

“I haven’t used it in the four months that we have been traveling” he protested.

“We are going hiking in one week! That is why we brought it!” I shook my head in amazement.

“Maybe the hostel will have a cup that I can buy, and I should also get another can of cooking fuel, just to be safe” I continued checking off items on my mental checklist.

Before I knew it our phones were buzzing us awake. We had to finish packing, eat breakfast, and catch the 8 a.m. bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.

Torres del Paine National Park is the number one tourist attraction in Chile. It is also consistently rated as one of the premier hiking destinations in the world.

The hikes in Torres are broken into segments. The most common hikes can be done in two or three days and are know as the “W”. The lesser known and longer hike through the park is called the “O” which is a circular trail that takes from six to eight days to complete. We opted for the “O”. This gave us more days in the park and allowed us to save some money as we would be camping every night.

Our plan was to arrive at the park and begin with the strenuous six hour round trip hike to the Torres, the crown jewel of the park. These are the famous mountain peaks that light up like fire when the morning sun strikes them. These are the same peaks that we had tried to see a few days earlier but couldn’t because of the weather. This is also what Medi had tried to see on the day that we picked him up in the park when he got soaked from the rain and almost lost his camera and phone. Unfortunately, the weather is not predictable at Torres and changes by the hour.

The drive to the park was uneventful and the weather was clear. It looked like we would have a good opportunity to make the trek that we couldn’t a few days before.

As we approached the park we could see the mountains in the distance. They looked impressive and formidable in the early morning light. But, as we got closer, the clouds began to obscure the top of the peaks. By the time we exited the bus, the mountains had disappeared behind a thick curtain of clouds.

As we put on our backpacks, the wind began to blow and a light rain started to fall. This was not the weather we needed if we were going to hike the difficult Torres trail.

We didn’t have a lot of time to decide. We would have to watch the time if we we decided to wait out the rain to begin the Torres hike. It would be a ten hour day to hike both trails and we had to check-in to camp by 8:00 p.m. We could skip the Torres hike and proceed to our first camp site four hours away. We decided not to chance the weather and instead begin our hike to camp Seron.

Ol was disappointed. He had planned on gorgeous photos of the Torres. I think he wanted to hike up to the lodge and try to wait out the weather. I knew the real danger was letting him back inside that posh lodge, that could be the end of our trip!

I decided to put on my rain gear. I am a little embarrassed because my blue rain gear makes me look a little like a giant blueberry. Thankfully, we have only had bad weather twice since September. Z-packs has had my black rain pants on backorder since August. I had hoped our daughter could bring them at Christmas. Our rain gear is as light as paper and totally waterproof. So, I suppose that I will continue to look like I stepped out of a Willy Wonka movie if it keeps me dry and keeps weight off of my back.

The strong Patagonian wind made it was an epic battle just to get out of the parking lot to begin our hike. We would take two steps forward and be blown back three. It was almost comical. I tried to grab the back of Ol’s pants as I was being blown sideways. For comparison, I remember Ol and I standing on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico at our home in Biloxi in a category 1 hurricane and the wind gusts were nothing compared to this.

Ol was bigger and could just dig in his hiking poles, I was thrown a good 2 or 3 feet before I could stop myself. A young couple was right behind us and having the same trouble. The guys fared much better. I actually started laughing as the other girl’s laugh was contagious. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but her laugh said everything.

After what seemed like an hour, we finally made it far enough up the mountain to shelter us from the winds. I’m sure that that hike, in good weather, only took 15 minutes. I now knew we made the right decision to not hike the Torre. I was already exhausted and now I was beginning to wonder if we were up for the entire trek.

After getting out of the wind, the trail was actually an easy hike. All of the Patagonia brochures said that hikers can experience four seasons in one day, or even in one hour, the weather changes so quickly. That is exactly what we experienced. Within minutes we were stopping to remove layers.

The trail was a little muddy in places, but very easy. We were following the base of the mountain and the trail alternated between muddy horse trails and nicely groomed hiking trails. We went through nice pine forests, meadows, and grasslands. We saw the occasional guanaco and herds of wild horses. We walked among wildflowers galore.

We also had to hop across rocks and logs at the few water crossings.

Before we knew it we were at camp. It was an easy hike and other than than the first hour, the weather was perfect. Now I regretted not hiking the Torre. I wonder if the weather had cleared on the side of the mountain. We were now on the backside of the mountain and it was hard to tell.

We checked in, set-up our tent, and cooked our dinner. One thing that we were surprised to learn after we had already begun our hike is that cooking is prohibited, even with a safe stove like our JetBoil, anywhere outside of the designated cooking areas within the camps. The food I brought for our lunches along the trail would have to be altered, as they required boiling water. All of the forest fires in the park have been caused by the high winds, so the park can no longer allow fires of any kind. I was now glad that I brought cheese and peanut butter to keep Ol happy.

We made a few friends while cooking and setting up our camp. It seemed that about twenty people were on the same schedule as us.

The next morning we took off for camp Dickson, a hike that would take us about six hours, as it was an easy twelve miles (18 Kms) away, with only one small climb.

Once again we had to battle fierce winds. Going was slow as we were walking straight into the wind. I was thankful for the sunny weather and the nice trail. I couldn’t imagine doing this in a storm.

The wildflowers were even more plentiful on this segment of the trail and we had a rainbow to guide our way. We easily made it into our second camp. I couldn’t help but think that we really should be on the Amazing Race. We were not the last ones to check in and we would not have been eliminated.

Throughout the day we leap frog one another on the trail. In doing so we become familiar with the other hikers. As a result we give them trail names. We named one couple from the UK the British Spies. They are a fit and tall couple (zero percent body fat), probably in their early 40’s, dressed all in black, with sophisticated gear (out of a 007 movie), and they hike just like they look.

We were pleased with ourselves whenever we would pass them on the trail. However, our lead never lasted very long. Unlike me they didn’t try to find the driest way to get across the rivers and streams, they just marched right through the water.

When we got to camp Dickson we set up our tent and prayed that it would hold up to another night of harsh winds. Our tent is ultralight and uses our hiking poles to hold it up. The entire thing weighs under a pound. Everyone else seemed to have much heavier, cold weather tents with wind guards. Our tent served us well on the JMT and Mount Whitney so we were hopeful.

At camp Dickson we were able to take nice hot showers. The shower felt wonderful, but there were no amenities. The shower was simply a dark box with little room to maneuver. I climbed in with my clothes on and shut the door. I put my towel, jacket, and change of clothes on a small shelf high above my head.

I decided to use this opportunity to wash my clothes at the same time. I left my clothes in the tub of the shower and after I washed myself I went to work on my clothes. The process was a little awkward, but it worked. I used Ol’s large jacket as a bathrobe, wrapped up my hair, and opened the door, only to see a bench full of waiting hikers in various stages of undress. There is no modesty on the trail.

I went to the sink on the other side of the building and finished rinsing out my clothes. I then headed back to our tent to hang up my gear. It was early afternoon, and with the wind my gear would dry within the hour.

At dinner, we had a good time getting to know more of our trail mates and sharing stories.

The people that we met on the trail were from all over the world.

We only hiked with a few Americans. Ted from California is one of the few Americans we had a chance to meet. He told us about his year long sabbatical which has allowed him to hike many of America’s National Parks before coming to Patagonia.

We also met a cute young couple who met while backpacking in South America. She was from Philadelphia and he was from Holland. We quasi adopted them by sharing our food after they told us that they had miscalculated their food and ran short.

It appeared that most of the long distance hikers were professionals, or working on advanced degrees. Most of them were educated and friendly, and it was easy to strike up good conversation and make new friendships. It seems like there is a bond among hikers who share a unique experience. Needless to say, we have invited our new friends to come stay with us if they ever find their way to Mississippi!

Ol was happy that his backpack was getting lighter as I slowly gave away more of our food to hikers who ran out. We had extra food that we weren’t cooking for lunch and for some odd reason Ol loses his appetite while hiking, while I become ravenous. He is the only person that I know who can live off of peanut butter and crackers!

After a short visit we headed to our tent for an early night. We were in our sleeping bags and already sleeping long before the sun set at 11 pm.

We were greatly annoyed to be awoken at 11:30 pm by a rude group of extremely loud hikers who decided to set up their tents inches away from ours (when there were dozens of other camp sites available). To make matters worse, they began to whistle and sing drinking songs while setting up their tents! I’m thankful that we brought along earplugs, just for occasions like this.

Later that night the winds again were fierce and sounded like a freight train. We were a little worried that our tent wouldn’t make it through the night. The winds blew in from every direction. But, when the sun came up, our tent was still standing.

So far, we had been spared any of the bad weather that we had read about. The only difficulty we had encountered was the wind. Somehow we didn’t get the wind memo.

Our third day on the trail was a short hike from Dickson to Los Perros. We had a small climb that was again made extremely challenging by the wind. This time the wind was a little more precarious because we were high on a ridge and I was afraid that I was going to be blown off!

Many times, we just leaned into the mountainside or sat down to wait out the wind gusts. We would take a few steps, stop, brace against the wind, hike really fast when the wind lets up, brace again, sit, repeat. Once off the ridge, the winds were gone and I was happy again.

We eventually made our way along a river and around a beautiful lake. The valley we entered was lined with magnificent snow capped peaks, and the first glaciers came into view. The wildflowers continued to fill every nook and cranny as far as the eye could see. This is exactly what I thought that trekking in Patagonia would be like!

We made our way into camp with no problem. Los Perros was by far the prettiest campsite we had been to in the park. There were plenty of trees, a nice river, and room for all campers to have some privacy.

Tomorrow would be an epic hike, up and down the tallest mountain pass in the park. The trail map said that we should prepare for an eleven hour hike. Our friend, Medi, said that we should plan on twelve.

Regardless, it would be a hard day. Tonight would be an another early night, hopefully without the singing and whistling hikers pitching a tent next to ours!

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