After a few days of non-stop sightseeing, hitchhiking and bus travel, I was keen to get a rest day in. The girls, who had less time than me, opted for a one day bus tour to the Torres Del Paine national park while I spent the next day catching up on some much needed sleep and researching several websites online about the trek I planned to do. I learned about the 3pm daily Torres Del Paine information session at nearby Erratic Rock Hostal and decided to go along with the intention of hiring some extra gear and perhaps meeting other solo travellers whom I could share the weight of the camping gear with. Luckily, the information session was packed with like-minded travellers and free coffee and I met several people – among them Sam, a girl from Melbourne! We arranged to do the hike together, using my very average tent while hiring the other gear we needed.
We planned to do the ‘W’ trek, named for the way in which the trail zig-zags across the national park. It is less strenuous than the full circuit (known as the ‘O’) but still offers some of the best sights the park has to offer. After sorting our gear at Erratic Rock we headed to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. Carrying all of your food and cooking equipment doesn’t offer much room for variety, our staple diet for the next few days would be: Oatmeal with powdered milk and raisins, coffee, apples, rice, rice, rice and some rice – just to be different. Sam, a self-confessed chocoholic, eyed off several options before settling on just under a kilogram of the good stuff. We parted ways and agreed to meet on the bus to the park the following morning.
Awakening at the ungodly hour of 6:00am, I shared sad goodbyes with Charlotte and Anee-Sophie who would be departing the following day for Buenos Aires. My backpack loaded only with what I needed for the trek, I walked the short two blocks to the bus stop. There was no sign of Sam, but as the bus also collects trekkers from their hostals I simply assumed we would be picking her up later. As the bus filled and the driver turned out of town, it dawned on me that this wasn’t going to be the case today. Realising that I had all of her food and Sam had the cooking equipment, I nervously started weighing up what options I had if she didn’t show up at the park entrance.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry for long. Two hours later as the bus drew into the park administration I saw a frantic Sam running past each bus and peering into each window. I grinned and gave her a big thumbs up. Crisis 1 had been averted, but we didn’t have to wait long for another upset.
The ‘W’ trek has two options – it can be hiked from east to west or vice versa. However, just as Sam and I had made the executive decision to trek east to west (starting with the Torres and finishing with the glaciar) her bus pulled away and started heading to the west side of the park, with her bag! Having had the decision changed for us, we climbed aboard my bus and headed down to the ferry crossing to the western side of the trail and the beginning of the ‘W’ trek.
Day 1: Refugio Paine Grande – Glaciar Grey (24km return)
As we stepped off the catamaran at Paine Grande Refugio, into Patagonian gale force winds, I Immediately thought of my poor choice of tent and crossed my fingers and toes. At the campsite we chose the most sheltered spot we could find and wrestled the flimsy tent to the ground. It was after 1 o’clock and with a 24km round trek to complete that afternoon, we quickly packed day-packs, threw our backpacks in the tent to weight it down and got moving.
We were walking up the western edge of the ‘W’ to Glaciar Grey, at the northern tip of the beautiful Lago Grey. As we made our way up the trail Patagonia reminded us that we had arrived late in the season, as fierce headwinds lashed at our waterproof jackets providing protection from the intermittent sleet and rain. Although the weather was poor, Autumn provides a stunning array of colours to the forest landscape; purple, yellow, orange, red and green mountainsides set against the iceberg dotted lake below.
The trail inclined upwards slightly as we neared the lower shoreline and curved around, bringing the face of the glaciar into view. It instantly reminded me of Glaciar Perito Moreno (it is a glaciar, after all) but somehow I felt like I had earned it more, having trekked through 12km of dense forest to get there. Several small trails snaked up and down, allowing us to observe the glaciar from several different angles. We posed for several photos and with an eye on the time, headed back to camp.
The relentless wind intensified as we drew closer to the campsite, and in my mind I created several scenarios for what may have happened to my little tent. I was genuinely surprised to find it still standing upon our return, though almost flattened to the ground by the wind and straining to stay put. Thankfully the kitchen was indoors and sheltered so we gathered our food and cooking equipment and headed inside. The panoramic windows in the kitchen offered us all a clear view of the escalating chaos outside. As the skies darkened, each of us quietly wondered which tent would be the first to go. We didn’t have to wait long. ‘A yellow tent just blew away!’, someone shouted. Torches in hands, we all went out to help gather the unfortunate occupants’ belongings and return them to the safety of the kitchen. No sooner had we started helping than the tent next to it tore from the ground and flew up into the air, destined for the lake! All that remained were a couple of pegs and two neatly arranged boots.
Then the inevitable happened. After 2 months and 2000km, countless nights pitched along the Carretera Austral and many days strapped to my pack, Patagonia claimed another victim: my tent. The feeble poles succumbed to the intense winds and gave way, snapping in several places. Luckily, we were able to retrieve our things and take them inside. Unfortunately, we were now also homeless, along with an Australian couple who had owned the yellow tent. Despite putting on my most lovable face and some begging in broken Spanish, we were not allowed to sleep in the kitchen. Instead, we stayed in the huge Doma Verde, a makeshift office tent used by the park rangers during the day. The novelty soon wore off as the gigantic, doorless dome left us shivering throughout the night.