Our Really Big Adventure    
Camping in Torres del Paine

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This is small, those are far away
The cliffs looked impossibly high and ridiculously far away, but we were going to try and get there anyway. It was officially a reconnaissance mission, but we still packed our gear - just in case. If we somehow got to the base of a nice looking cliff, we sure as hell wanted to be able to climb it.

Above the treeline stretched a steep scree slope, unstable, unending and frankly uninviting. Beyond that, partially snow covered slabs ran to the base of the massive granite cliffs. I doubted we would find ourselves at the base of a nice looking cliff. Aesthetically beautiful, certainly, but far too intimidating to qualify as “nice”.

Caelen, Anthea, Nick and Sarah dismissed my reservations out of hand. I lacked perspective, apparently. The cliffs were much nearer than I claimed, and much smaller. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but there was only one way to find out.

We bashed our way through the trees and onto the scree. Moving into a gully on our right we began the long slog upwards. I fixed my attention on a large boulder about half way up the gully and on one side, promising myself a break when I reached it. It was the size of a truck, stranded alone in a sea of small rocks. I couldn’t imagine the force that had moved that boulder and deposited it there.

By the time we reached the boulder, it was lunchtime and we were ready for a rest. We dug out our picnics and our sun cream and enjoyed the sun. A plastic mountaineering-booted bouldering session inevitably followed.

We resisted the temptation to stay there all afternoon, and continued up the slope. Eventually we reached the slabs that led to the base of the cliffs. Climbing these slabs would not be difficult, but definitely too treacherous to do without placing protection and using ropes. It was already 2.30pm, and moving roped would slow our progress enormously. Clearly we weren’t going to reach the cliffs today.

Our descent was speedy but hair-raising. The rock underfoot was loose and the risk of twisting an ankle or worse was uppermost in my head. We reached a gully of scree and dirt that ran all the way down to the woods and set off down it, setting off rock slides with every step. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was quick, and at the bottom of the gully we emerged through a marsh onto the trail. Through a combination of luck and a vague sense of direction, we were only ten minutes from camp and a nice hot cup of tea.

Base Camp Bitches
The campfire was the centre of life at Campo Britannico. That evening we had a big crowd around it, with several stoves going at any one point and a constant stream of tea. As Phil sat waiting for water to boil, he was rebuked by Sarah. “Phil, are you watching that pot? Did you never study physics? You know a watched pot never boils! Idiot!”

The next day saw a sharp reduction in our numbers. Caelen and Geoff had gone climbing, eight had already left to trek out in various directions, and Badger, Nick and Liz were planning to do the same after breakfast. Badger had planned a delicacy for the other two – camp porridge. He added just the right amount of oats to the perfect quantity of river water. In the absence of sugar, some dulce de leche (sticky caramel spread) and a couple of pieces of chocolate were stirred into the mix and the finished product proudly spooned onto waiting dishes. Despite the care and attention that had been lavished on her meal, Liz was unimpressed. “Oh man, this looks like stuff you feed to pigs!” she exclaimed with distaste.

The previous evening’s wood collection was more than adequate to keep the fire going until lunchtime or so, the tea bags were close to hand and my water bottle was nicely full. I didn’t move far that morning. In fact, no one moved far that morning. Badger, Nick and Liz appeared to be in no hurry to leave for Campo Italiano. “Will we go soon?” one would suggest. “Nah, let’s have another brew.” Morning became early afternoon, and we began to doubt whether they would leave that day at all. Or the next. Eventually, contrary to all indications, they actually shouldered their packs and headed off down the trail. The four of us left looked at each other, shrugged and fired up another brew.

We’re tough, we are
We planned a gentle walk out. Two hours down to Campo Italiano today, two hours to the 12.30pm catamaran the next day. From the ferry to the campsite we’d be able to hitch.

As I picked up my pack for the walk down, I was disgusted to find that it seemed to be just as heavy as it had been coming up. We’d been eating solidly for three days – surely we should have put some dent in the load? We’d better eat a lot tonight because I sure as hell didn’t want to carry this much again the next day.

One of the real pleasures of coming down from a stiff climb is the smug encouragement you can give to those on the way up. And today there were lots of people coming up. With ice axes, crampons and helmets dangling from our enormous packs, we looked very tough. These people were not to know that the ice axes had been used for nothing more than digging holes, and of the four of us, only Caelen had used his helmet. Nor had they seen us struggling exhausted up the hill three days previously. They saw us now, on the descent, rested, with enormous packs and hardcore equipment, looking like fit people.

We arrived in Campo Italiano in the early afternoon, set up camp and headed off to relax by the river. With the sun shining and the river gushing by, it was a glorious spot. Perfect conditions for lazing by the river, reading a book, snoozing on a large sun warmed boulder or maybe even for a shower.

Glacial streams - there’s a clue in the name –they tend to be, well, glacial. And this one was no exception. The first splashes of water took my breath away, but strangely the next sensation was warmth. So far so good, now I was wet enough to soap up. The next splashes were even colder, and the tentative mini-spattering that had got me wettish wouldn’t be enough to rinse off the soap. I’d need to be more thorough, more ruthless. Worst of all was the head. The icy water dunking made my whole skull contract in pain, and it took several attempts to get out all the shampoo.

Afterwards, though, I felt wonderful. Clean, fresh, warm and invigorated. Ready for a nice doze by the river on that comfy looking boulder.

Stinky climbers would like to get in your nice clean car
I’d been sure we could hitch the 10 kms from the ferry to the campsite no problem, but as we neared the dock my confidence began to dwindle. We jumped off, started down the road, and realised with dismay that the few vehicles leaving the dock were heading in the other direction. Still, trying to hitch would help pass the time.

It didn’t make sense for the four of us to hitch together, so we split into pairs, Caelen and I ahead, Dai and Phil behind. We trudged along the dusty unsealed road along the lakeside. There were few landmarks to judge our progress, and the winding of the road around the various little inlets made it impossible to judge the distance to points ahead of us. Few vehicles passed us, and those that did all seemed to be attached to the expensive Hotel Explora. The drivers made apologetic gestures, but we couldn’t help feeling they were glad that company policy forbade them giving lifts to smelly, dirty climbers.

A few kilometres along the road, we’d resigned ourselves to the walk. We’d stopped for a break, the lads had caught up and we were all sprawled along the roadside. The sound of an engine approaching penetrated our torpor, and we jumped up without much hope. A pickup truck rounded a corner, and much to our surprise, stopped at the sight of our outstretched thumbs. For a moment, we thought we’d really struck gold – if we could get in the back of the truck then maybe all four of us could go. But no, they only had room for two, and took off with Phil and Dai waving triumphantly at us from the passenger seats as we trudged wearily along the road.

The Best Shower in the World, Ever
Torres del Paine has a reputation as a very rainy place, but we had been blessed with sunny spring weather for our entire stay. The day we stumbled, dusty but elated, into Camping Pehoe was the hottest and sunniest of them all. We were among the last back into camp, and the celebrations had started already.

Celebrations are all well and good, but first we had other fish to fry. The campsite had hot, full volume showers, and we urgently needed to stand under them for several hours. Our glacial dip notwithstanding, we were dirty, dusty and smelly, and a hot shower seemed like unimaginable luxury.

We emerged, unrecognisably clean, to laze about on the grass and watch the proceedings. Others had chosen not to resist the tempting beers on their return to camp, and a rather uncoordinated bouldering session was in progress on the back of the truck. Watching Stephan come tumbling off the wall after trying nothing more complicated than holding on, I concluded that for me it should be beer or bouldering, not both.

So resolutely I wandered away to the bar. A corral had been set up in the lake, where the beer and soft drinks could be chilled without risk of the cans floating away. Well, with reduced risk anyway – a couple of chilly recovery missions were required, but all the absconders were retrieved.

As the sun set over the mountains, we sat on the lakeshore by the fire. For the first time in days we were clean and we had beer. We were tired, our muscles hurt and our trousers hung a little loosely from our hips after four days of camp food. Life doesn’t get much better.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of our bar at Torres del Paine - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of us bouldering at Torres del Paine - Chile Travelogues
The lake bar

Bouldering in plastic boots
Picture of Caelen and Anthea Torres del Paine - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of our camp site at Torres del Paine - Chile Travelogues
Caelen & Anthea
Lazing by the campfire

Picture of the horns Torres del Paine - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of anthea on a scree slope Torres del Paine - Chile Travelogues
Horns of Paine
Anthea on the scree slopes