Backpacking at the Bottom of the World

We arrived at the airport in Punto Arenas at 4:15 in the morning, whole 4 hours before the airport even opened and the buses started rolling into town. It was the beginning of a grand adventure, and like every other oversized backpack wearer in the tiny two terminal airport, we picked a corner, laid down a jacket, and slept on the airport floor till the sun came up. Over half my program had been on the same flight; everyone was headed for the great outdoors.

There were three major groups going, one on an 8 day hike, one on the 5 day W, and us, hoping to do day hikes from a campsite (we were the lazy ones). However, once in our hostel at Punto Arenas we realized that day hiking was almost impossible in Torres Del Paine: you needed a much more solid plan. So I found some info on the internet about taking a ferry to the end of the W and hiking two days in to see Glacier Grey (the famous ones in all the photos). I felt this was a good scheme…see the highlight of the trial and avoid three days of snow camping.

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The Plaza De Armas in Punto Arenas; Me and the Port; A Dog who brought us a rock to play fetch with; The Straight of Magellan

Two three hour bus rides later, one night in Melinda’s less then reputable hostel, and a park entrance fee later, we were on a beautiful sea glass green lake surrounded by snow topped mountains, and rock face waterfalls enjoying the wind on the top deck of the ferry. Unfortunately, the wind we liked so much kicked up so much water that the ferry had to turn around or risk capsizing.

This was the beginning of our series of less then fortunate events:

We got off the ferry and were informed that they would not be running till the wind got better, possibly in the morning. However, we had no place to camp, and not enough time or money to exit the park and re-enter in the morning. So, following a random stranger who had a better idea, we got on a bus that took us to the first leg of the 8 day hike. They told us that if we walked for a little under 4 hours we would reach the same campsite that the ferry would have dropped us off at.

At the mouth of the trail, I read a sign that said our hike would be 18k (roughly 11miles). We started off into the wilderness, massive rolling planes of tall grass with mountains and towering rock formations as the backdrop. The wind was so strong you could lay your body into it and not fall down. The lakes we encountered were pure turquoise, and the overcast cloud cover created a sense of sublime mysticism. (If you’ve seen Eddie Izzard talk about Stonehenge, you know what I’m talking about).

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I was floored by how beautiful the place was. When we reached the first campsite (not an official one, a simply hollow where some people had pitched tents) about 2 hours in, half the group wanted to camp there. The rest of us wanted to make it all the way because if we didn’t there was no way we were going to make it to the glacier. We convinced the group to keep moving with the promise that we only had 2 more hours to go.

15 minutes after we had moved on, it began down pouring, and the wind picked up to be (what one guide estimated later) to be more then 100k/h. The trail took to the hills at this point as well, winding up for a breathtaking view of a lake and the famous Torres Mountain Range. In all we were walking another 4.5 hours due to wind and underestimation. The last leg of the journey ended up being on the cliff’s face – as in the trail disappeared and we were half rock climbing, half sliding for the last half-mile or so over the lake…in the wind… and the rain. This part was not so fun.

BUT! We made it to the campsite, pitched our rented tents, and enjoyed a dinner of dried fruit, bread, and salami. (one very nice gal from Chicago that we met at the site gave us the rest of her pasta too – all the people we encountered were incredibly helpful).

Later that night, we discovered that we had miscounted sleeping bags and only had 4 for 6 people. Two of the other girls and I took one for the team and huddled together under one in our tent. The wind was pretty bad (as in it practically flattened our tent on top of us while we “slept”) but at least there was no snow and I had a great jacket that acted mostly like the other half of a sleeping bag for me.

In the morning the majority of the group did not want to walk any further, they wanted to get on the now functioning ferry and go home. I (and two others) was determined to see what I could of the glacier though, so we hiked up a much easier trail to the look out point. I really cannot describe how amazing it is to be up there, and the pictures don’t do it justice, but it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

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Sunrise; Glacier; Torres; Rocks; Ice bergs

In total we only walked about 30k, and in retrospect I really wish I had done the W. I chose to go with friends instead of the people doing the longer hikes, but it was so beautiful I wish I could have seen more of it. It was a really great lesson to learn about traveling and choosing who you travel with though. And I really did get to see some amazing things.

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