Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
Length: 18km, elevation gain: 800m, time: 7 hours.
Those are the vital statistics of our hike to the Torres del Paine. Not too long, not too much uphill, lots of time available – no problem for a seasoned hiker, such as myself. Or so I thought…………..
See, the trouble is, I still think of myself as a young, fit, twenty-something year old that can scramble up a mountainside, hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat, reach the top, have lunch, admire the view and still be back in time for a nice cocktail on the deck before dinner. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. I am, in fact, a forty-something (just) year old, whose girth has increased while muscle mass has decreased and whose stamina is now about the same as a limp leaf of lettuce. I am now more like a lazy sloth than a spritely goat and so completely useless at anything that requires any kind of physical prowess or endurance. But why would I let that stop me!?!
Our destination for the day was a lookout for the Torres del Paine. This is often translated as Towers of Pain, and the hike is endearingly referred to as the Hike of Pain. This is certainly a very apt name, as you will soon see, although the actual translation is Towers of Blue. However, since the Hike of Blue does not convey the reality of this hike, I am sticking to the mistranslated name. We started by ascending from the lush valley floor into the mouth of a narrow, glaciated valley. The glacier has long since retreated and instead we were accompanied by a laughing, chattering, babbling brook, dancing in the valley far below our feet. Each side of the valley was clothed in old, gnarled southern beech trees crowding over the path, like old men leaning towards each other trying to catch the words of a whispered conversation. As we hiked through the tunnel of trees, the sunlight filtered down through the bright green leaves, bathing our path with vibrant spring green light. All was peaceful, all was good.
Time passed and the path continued to lead us, enticing us onwards and upwards. The trees aged and shrank, curling in on themselves, trying to hide from the worst of the Southern Patagonian weather. As we hiked, clouds began to gather in the cornflower blue sky. The wind started to whip strands of stray hair into my face and dust devils swirled around my feet. The path seemed to sense the change in the weather and it too began to transform. No longer a meandering trail following the contours of the valley, it became strewn with small rocks which morphed into large boulders. The gradient ramped up, literally, and soon we were scrambling from one boulder to another on the face of a steep, exposed boulder field. The trees were now reduced to diminutive carpets of green. The wind tugged at our clothes, whistling past our ears, trying to wrench us from the face of the rocks. My entire being was focussed down onto one foot, ensuring that it was placed safely, without slipping into a crevice and breaking an ankle, without stepping on a rock that looked big enough to support an elephant but in reality would tip as soon as a mouse so much as breathed on it. As I climbed, up, ever up, endlessly up, I met people coming down. They all smiled at me and had words of encouragement to try to lessen the torture and pain that I was enduring:
“Keep going, you’re nearly there!”
“The view is worth all the effort!”
“How on earth are you keeping that hat on your head!?!”
“It is only another ten minutes!”
Initially, all these comments were very welcome. However, after the fourth “It is only another ten minutes!” after I had been struggling up that boulder slope for at least 40 minutes since the first its only 10 minutes comment, I did nearly lose it. The next person that turned to tell me that it was only another 10 minutes nearly died a ghastly, hideous death involving as much torture as I was suffering at that time. I haven’t watched all those episodes of Law and Order: SVU or read Val McDermid for nothing, you know. Luckily for him, I was far too close to death myself to attempt murder and, as it happens, he was the first one that was actually right. Ten minutes later, I got to find out whether it was really worth it.
Well, what do you think?
After admiring the view, taking oodles of photos and generally collapsing on the rocks in a heap of exhaustion, I came to the realisation that I had only completed half of the hike. Oh crap. While toiling my way up the boulder slope, there was a nagging thought, tugging away at the back of my mind, a little whispered thought along the lines of “Don’t forget, you still have to make it back down again.” I, of course, ignored this thought, since my mind was completely focussed on just one thought “Just keep going, you will make it to the top.” Now that objective had been completed, my mind was free to entertain new thoughts. And so, the little nagging notion was now a full blown cry of “Oh my God, how on earth am I going to make it back!?!”
Well, the human body is an amazing piece of biological engineering, as I had already witnessed on my hike of the Inca Trail. Even when you feel that you couldn’t possibly walk as far as a flea can hop, you can still manage to drag your carcass 9km down a mountainside and back to civilisation. Now, I did have some encouragement from a couple of sources. The first was from Mr. DBM. He kept reminding me that the bus would be leaving at 5pm sharp and that we couldn’t possibly stop, since if we missed the bus we would have another 5km hike to get back to the main road and then we would have to try to hitch a lift back to our camp. Is that what I wanted? Well, no, obviously. And so the forced march continued.
The other force driving me on was a natural one. As we were hiking up to view the Towers, the weather was starting to close in on us. While we were at the Towers, the clouds began to gather ominously, first one, then another Tower being swallowed up into the swirling, menacing void. The wind howled, the sky darkened. It was definitely time to get moving. As we headed along the path, you could see the blue sky and the sunlit valley below beckoning us forward, the valley’s wide and welcoming arms waiting to greet us with her warm embrace. If you dared to look behind, it appeared as if the hounds of hell were being prepared for release, ready to chase us down and out of the valley, nipping at our heels, jaws snapping at our backs. The sky was a boiling mass of grey and black, and the wind was barrelling down the valley tearing past us, tugging, pulling and pushing. The rain began to fall, mixed with ice and hail, flying horizontally past us and pounding into our backs, soaking us in seconds. Gravel flew past, a hat went flying and I swear a small furry animal went sailing past, emitting a plaintive meeeeep, meeeeeeeeeeep as it disappeared. At one point, right where the path was at its narrowest and the drop on one side at its steepest, the wind gathered all its strength and hurled itself at me. I started sliding and slipping towards the precipitous edge. I crouched down and flailed and grabbed at the loose gravel, finding nothing to hold on to. I wailed at Joe, but my cries were lost in the shrieking of the wind. Luckily, just as I thought I was going over the edge, I managed to grab onto sturdy, solid and stationary rock. My slide stopped, the wind, as if realising its defeat, subsided and I did not die. What a relief.
The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. As we descended into the valley below, the wind was left behind, the sun dried our soaking backs and the mood lightened. We were going to make the bus, and we might even have time for a refreshing beer.
Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is probably one of the most beautiful parks that I have ever visited. The park is well known for its outstanding natural beauty in terms of both scenery and flora and fauna. From the three majestic granite towers that rise vertically into the sky to the other quintessential emblem of the park, the Cuernos del Paine, the Horns of Paine.
The monumental granite peaks are surrounded by lakes of turquoise blue and a mosaic of vibrant greens, vivid reds and oranges and yellows of the low growing shrubs and flowers that carpet the valley floors and the rolling hills. We spent one day touring the park, stopping the bus every ten seconds or so to oooh and ahhhh over the scenery or some cute and furry animal. One of these animals was the guanaco, a smaller, daintier version of the llama. They can survive in this cold, harsh climate due to their ability to digest the poorest of vegetation and their double coats, a coarse outer layer that protects the warm, soft, luxuriant inner layer.
As we rounded one bend, a black shape glided past, wheeling and soaring over the valley. The bus screeched to a stop and we all piled out and craned our necks up as the creature circled above us. As we watched, another arrived, followed by another, and then another. Within minutes, we were surrounded by majestic birds – the Andean condor. If you remember, I spent hours huddled on the top of a freezing cold canyon in Peru waiting to catch a glimpse of one of these colossal birds, and, while I did catch a brief, fleeting, very far away glimpse, I never really felt as though I got to see the bird. Well, all good things do come to those who wait and, just as with the giant otter, when I least expected it, I got to observe these fabulous birds, up close and personal. In total, we had 11 birds circling above us, floating effortlessly on the endless winds of the Patagonian landscape. This bird is the largest flying land bird in the Western hemisphere, with a wing span of up to 10ft. Despite its size and its not-so-pretty demeanor, it is remarkably graceful and is adept at catching thermals, allowing it to float in the sky, rarely having to flap its wings to maintain altitude. Darwin once spent half an hour watching these birds and commented that in that time he did not see one flap its wings even once.
There you have it – Torres del Paine National Park. A place of spectacular beauty, amazing wildlife, glorious hikes and where I nearly died, not once, but twice. Visit at your own risk, but do try to visit, since a near death experience or two just makes you relish your visit even more!