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Hiking in Torres del Paine

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I gazed with incredulity at the enormous pile of gear strewn about on the ground of our Torres del Paine campsite. Food, tent, stove, fuel, sleeping bag – the standard trekking kit amounts to a fair bit of weight. Add a 60m rope, a trad rock climbing rack (that’s a whole lot of metal for the uninitiated), an ice axe, crampons and a couple of ice screws “just in case”, and you’re looking at a serious load. Supposing, just for a moment, that I could somehow fit all this gear in my pack, I’d then be faced with the even more daunting task of carrying the damn thing.

Our plan was simple and attractive, at least it was until I realised I’d be carrying a pack far in excess of my airline luggage allowance. We’d take the 12.30pm catamaran across the lake to Refugio Pehoé, hike several hours up the Vallé des Francés over increasingly difficult terrain, camp at Campo Britannico and spend the next few days rock climbing. We knew there were plenty of climbing possibilities, but we had no specific information on routes or conditions. There seemed to be a lot of snow on the ground up there, and while we’d packed axes and crampons, most of us didn’t want to tangle with anything too serious. Even if we could get to the base of an attractive looking cliff, the climbs themselves could be icy and wet, and we had no information on descent routes. All things considered, the chances that boot would ever meet rock seemed slim, but it was a journey into the unknown and I was excited.

We disembarked from the ferry and sat around the lakeshore making some final adjustments, eating food in a futile attempt to lighten our loads, and generally putting off the moment when we’d actually need to shoulder our packs and set off. The excessively keen stood around fidgeting impatiently for about 10 seconds, before striding off quickly down the trail. The rest of us followed gradually in twos and threes, with Caelen, Phil and I predictably bringing up the rear.

Our trail led through scrub and low bushes along the side of the lake. With 25kgs on my back I felt top heavy and unstable. There was a fresh breeze blowing in off the lake, which frequently and without warning gusted up to 70mph, nearly toppling me over each time. Ahead of us the others wound in and out of sight, traversing up a hillside then dropping out of view over a ridge. Only a few minutes out from the refugio, I needed to rest. My shoulders were in pain and we’d hardly started. I was having serious doubts about my ability to do this, and began lowering my expectations. Campo Italiano was much nearer than Campo Britannico, and the trail was relatively flat and easy up to that point. Maybe that was a more realistic goal for the day. For now I didn’t share my thoughts with the guys.

Left to my own devices, I’d have been resting every few minutes. Caelen was wise to my weakness, and with military precision instituted a programme of half an hour’s walking followed by 5 minutes rest. “Can we stop yet?” I’d whimper. “No, not for another 3½ minutes,” he’d respond firmly. As we progressed I grew more comfortable with my pack – not that it grew more comfortable, you understand, but I stopped feeling I was going to topple over with every high step or sudden gust.

It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun was shining, but the cool breeze ensured we didn’t overheat. The lake beneath us was intensely blue; the slope rising to our left green with splashes of spring colour at lower elevations, rocky and snow-patched higher up. Ahead of us the granite Horns of Paine rose sheer and majestic for hundreds of metres, the caramel rock seeming warm and inviting. From time to time a tip of one of the famous Towers would sneak into view from behind the sheltering Horns. Despite the aching shoulders, the nagging awareness of an incipient blister on my heel and the general feeling that I was pushing my puny body beyond its limits, I was surprised to discover that I was really enjoying myself.

As we neared Campo Italiano, we closed the gap with the pack ahead. I had imagined that everyone else was skipping along effortlessly while I alone struggled under the weight, but I was in good company as we shuffled the last few hundred metres into the camp.

It was after 4pm, and Campo Britannico was a good 2½ hours away, up a trail that was steeper, rougher and considerably more difficult than the one we had followed so far. The superhuman hard core had gone on already, leaving us mere mortals sprawled around in varying states of exhaustion debating the options. Looking around, it seemed obvious to me that the majority would and should go no further today. I certainly didn’t want to.

Then, unaccountably, something started to shift. Badger talked about how much, much more pleasant it would be to wake up in the morning and be already at Campo Britannico. This was unarguable, but it didn’t initially cut any ice with me. It convinced Caelen, though, which gave rise to a bit of a dilemma. With one tent between us, we kind of had to end up in the same place that night. It convinced Dai too, and a few others, and gradually, imperceptibly, I was won over.

Eager to leave before I could change my mind, Caelen, Dai and I set off, threatening Badger with a host of nasty accidents if he failed to make it to Campo Britannico that evening after persuading us to go.

Within 10 minutes I was regretting my choice. My shoulders were in constant pain, my hip was red and raw where my waistband chafed, my blisters had left incipience far behind and the terrain was, as promised, far more difficult than before. I enjoy hopping over rocks, clambering around boulders and climbing steep muddy banks when I’m not exhausted and weighed down by a 25kg pack. Actually, in a strange way I was enjoying it, but I couldn’t explain why.

We moved into the trees, following a ridge for a while before moving onto the undulating terrain carved by hundreds of snow melt streams. By now we were all wilting. In the forest we had no sense of distance covered or progress made, each stream bed we scrambled down was a disheartening loss of a few metres height, and climbing out again was more exhausting each time. Our reserves long expended, we were simultaneously cold and hot as we stumbled through the now sunless Patagonian evening adhering rigorously to Caelen’s break schedule. Tough though it was, we knew we would grind almost to a halt if we allowed ourselves to rest whenever we felt like it.

I began to hallucinate, seeing tents through the dappled trees. “We’re there!” I would think for a moment, before my eyes refocused and recognised what was just another patch of forest. Finally, some patches of blue and purple up ahead resolved themselves not into branches but into actual tents. We stumbled towards the campfire and a welcome brew. We were exhausted but exhilarated, we’d made it and the feeling of achievement would persist long after the memory of the pain faded.

Pictures - click to enter
Picture of Barbara with heavy load hiking torres del paine - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of the horns hiking torres del paine - Chile Travelogues
Heavily laden
The Horns of Paine
Picture of the shark fin hiking torres del paine - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of an avalanche hiking torres del paine - Chile Travelogues
The Shark's Fin - great climbing, if we could get there

Picture of Campo Britannico hiking torres del paine - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of Caelen heavily laden hiking torres del paine - Chile Travelogues
Campo Britannico
Caelen's pack was even heavier than mine