[Note: This will be a very photo-heavy post. It could have been even more unwieldy with photos, but I showed great restraint, I assure you. Please do feel free to check out all the day’s photos on my Flickr, though. I love them all.]
I rose at 8am, after several hours dozing through the light from the very-early sunrise. After dressing, I ambled down to the dining dome for a simple, tasty buffet-style breakfast. Then, I returned to my dome to throw a few useful things (extra jackets, food, camera) into my backpack. After a stop at the bar dome to buy a bottle of water, I set off purposefully into the morning, intent upon doing the hike that a guest from London had recommended: the Mirador Las Torres.
There is a little path that snakes down Ecocamp’s hill that I had not known about; it’s a much easier way to reach the main road than the gravel road I had arrived on. After passing a refugio and a fancy-shmancy hotel, I crossed a bridge, traipsed down a gravel hill, and reached the Mirador Las Torres trailhead.
I shall begin my retelling of the day by examining my changing frames of mind during the hike, and afterward I shall delve into the details. When I was walking on flat stretches, I triumphantly thought, “I’m such a good hiker, with my real backpackers’ pack and my organized satchel of food!” When the path wended up steep hills and mountainsides, I alternated between, “Whoof. Maybe I’m not in good hiking shape. Have I ever been?” and “Oh my, just look at that fascinating flower by the side of the trail; I must collapse next to it to photograph it.” (To be fair, there was an abundance of exciting new flora.) When the path headed back down slopes: “Wha–! But I just spent an hour climbing up that hill! You can’t make me go back down!” And as I climbed the long, steep trail to my ultimate destination: “I am going to die right here and I can’t possibly go on and this mountain is far too tall and oh gods.”
The trail started in mild, gently hilly country, with short spiny shrubs growing everywhere. “Diminutive and prickly” seems to be standard for many Torres del Paine plants, perhaps both as a means to fend off large herbivores and to hold fast against the area’s unusually strong winds. I spent a chunk of time thinking about the things I’d learned in college about wind-adapted plants, and hunting for those characteristics in the surroundings.
I’ve discovered that I like hiking alone (as well as traveling alone). Hiking alone eliminates a few of the things that had bothered me about hiking: I can go at my own speed, and I don’t feel like a bother or a weakling if I decide to stop and rest, since there’s no other person to compare against or delay. I also could stop every three feet to photograph plants and vistas, again without fear of holding anyone up. I still maintained a good pace, and I felt safe on the trail, since there were plenty of other hikers within shouting distance. I did miss having someone to exult with over the scenery, though.
About an hour and a half in, as the trail’s hills got more vigorous, I stopped to take a drink of water… but discovered that my water bottle had leapt out of my backpack, who knows how far back. I futilely re-searched the bag, knowing I couldn’t continue without water and doubtful that I would have the energy to hike back down to fetch water, and then return to complete the trail. Just then, a couple from Australia stopped for a chat. I mentioned my water dilemma, and they said, “Well, we’ve got an extra bottle. Would you like it?” Upon my fervent yes please, they pulled out a disposable plastic bottle, filled it with some water from their own bottle, and gave it to me. I thanked them, intensely relieved that my hike was salvaged.
(The couple and I hiked near each other for a while: I might walk faster but then stop for a photograph or a rest, and we would exchange a few words when they passed by. We parted when they stopped for lunch near the river, but I ran into them again on my way back down the trail, hours later, and was glad to have the chance to thank them again.)
After several more grueling uphill slogs, I reached a place where the trail was naught more than a notch in the giant sloped hillside. In the valley far below me, there was a frothy blue-green river. Beside the trail, there were patches of crumbling shale and lots of tiny plants. One common plant during the whole hike was a little dense thing with miniscule white bell flowers (like mini-manzanita), pointed sharp leaves, and bulging pink-white berries. In case you were wondering, its name is Pernettya mucronata, but since you’re friends, you may call it Prickly Heath or Chaura.
Eventually, the trail descended down to the river. There was a narrow wooden bridge spanning the roiling water, which I edged across carefully. This bridge had a guardrail on each side and a sturdy platform of half-logs laid perpendicular to the longer logs underneath. This construction turned out to be quite extravagant: as I got further up the trail, there were many more bridges to cross the river, most of whom had only one guardrail, and whose number of platform logs decreased steadily until the bridge was nothing more than three long logs laid next to each other. Very exciting.
Past this bridge, there was a small refugio-lodge, which offered bathrooms, instant coffee, and picnic tables. I walked past it, and continued along the trail, now passing through a shady forest on the banks of the river. Here, there were more new-to-me plants growing in the leaf-matter, including two variants of lady’s-slipper, spiky-topped yellow orchids, and abundant tender greenlings.
It was raining for most of the time I was on the trail, in light, prickling sprinkles. I didn’t mind in the least, though; I hoped that the drops that were landing on my face might also be falling on the fire-ravaged parts of the park, assisting the land’s slow healing process. The scenery I was walking through consistently made me exclaim with delight, and so anything that could help this land was fine by me. Anyhow, it was refreshing as long as I kept moving, and the storm clouds imbued everything with a dramatic cold light.
The path crossed back over the river, and climbed up and down and up and down a series of small, root-riddled hills, some where the roots were used as natural stairs. I stopped on a rock to eat half of my sandwich, and then continued as the trail went further up, until it broke out of the forest.
The landscape up here was phenomenal, though the winds whipped fiercely around me. On one side, there was another steep drop-off to the river, with a view of ancient snow-capped mountains and striped cliffs. On the other side, there was a miniature, Krummholz-esque forest. This contained twisted trees no more than twice my height, whose roots were nestled in dense, uplifted mats of moss and hardy tiny plants. These mats were about a foot above the non-treed ground. Wind erosion was slowly wearing away at everything it could reach, so the trees appeared as though they were surfing crookedly across cresting waves of plants.
After an excessive amount of ups and downs, the path reached a sign that declared that it was about 45 minutes to the mirador at the trail-end. However, I had been warned that this sign was a lie, and that it was at least an hour from there. I was bone-tired by then, but am also stubborn as a mule, so I continued wearily onward. At this point, the trail became all uphill, all the time. Initially, it passed by scenic tiny glacial waterfalls and red-flowered bushes. Then, it got too high up for any trees, and became simply a dust-and-boulders smudge snaking up a vertical mountainside.
Far above me, I could see colorfully-outfitted hikers still following the path, which curved around huge boulders. I moved like a sloth, dragging myself upward a few feet and then halting. I couldn’t see the trail-end, but it seemed impossibly far away. As I reached the peak of exhaustion and kept going, I kept thinking of a quote from the movie Gattaca, where one character tells his brother how he always managed to beat him in childhood ocean-swimming races: “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it: I never saved anything for the swim back.”
After several eons, I made it! And there was no question in my mind that it was worth the pain. I had crossed over the crest of the mountain, into a landscape strewn with ash-grey boulders. Before me, there was an enormous, vividly green lagoon. Above that, there was an expanse of mottled rock and permanent snow, with a long icy waterfall sliding down one side. Above that were Las Torres, the giant, craggy towers which can be distantly seen from much of the park. Their heads were draped in clouds, which lent them a feeling of otherworldliness.
Unsurprisingly, it was very chilly up here, but I had packed two extra jackets, and was pleased that I hadn’t lugged them up here for nothing. I collapsed on a flattish boulder and devoured several foods from my pack — peanuts, crackers, the rest of my sandwich, and the best and hardest-earned fruit cup I’ve ever had.
After a suitable gaze & rest in these remarkable, remote surroundings, I mustered my legs and began the journey back down all the trail I had covered before. The journey down the steep mountainside was easier, but a little scary: I was in sneakers, the path was slippery with dust, and a misstep could send me tumbling hundreds of feet. I walked like a nimble, paranoid mountain goat, and had no mishaps.
The return trip was like a giant reunion. By sheer chance, I ran into half the people I’d met in Torres del Paine as they were coming up the trail, and paused to chat with all of them. They included: the friendly water-benefactor Australian couple, two different couples I knew from Ecocamp, an Uruguayan man I’d spent an hour chatting with on the van from Puerto Natales, another man who had been in the same van, and one of the Chilean women who had given me a ride part of the way to Ecocamp. The latter was soon followed by her young daughter and her adult friend. I think the daughter had enjoyed meeting me yesterday, as the mother asked me to wait until she caught up; when they turned the corner of the path, the mother said, “Surprise! Look who it is!” and the daughter grinned and shyly said “Hola!” It was pleasant and small-world-y to chat with so many people I’d figured I would never see again.
Ginnsy: thanks again for lending me your backpack for this trip. It was invaluable for this long hike, letting my hips take much of the pack’s weight, instead of my poor decrepit shoulders. I hope you didn’t want the pack back, because it and I are going to elope, and we plan to have a long and happy life together.
As I continued back, I wondered if it was possible if I had really hiked down this many hills on the way in (which I now had to trek up); I think they must have multiplied in my absence. I stopped at a tiny waterfall and at a rushing stream to refill my water bottle. This was a benefit of this particular hike: you only needed to carry a bit of water if you had a bottle, because all of the running water was supposed to be safe to drink. Since I haven’t died yet, that seems to have been accurate, and now I can brag about having drunk Chilean glacier-stream water.
I paused to rest a few times on the way back, but mostly tried to push on as steadily as I could, dreaming of the bowl of Ramen I would cook when I got back. My knees, ankles, and feet lodged numerous complaints, but after a very long time, I made it back to the main road. After another half-hour of walking, I was back at my dome, just in time for mint-flavored pisco sours, coffee, and hors d’oeuvres.
The hors d’oeuvres (fancy cheese, pineapples slices, cookies) helped me transition from shaky energy-less to exhausted but stable. I had a nice time chatting with some new guests, including a law professor and a French teacher from Canada. When everyone departed for dinner, I had a quick bowl of Ramen and then went to shower all the trail-dust away. In keeping with their philosophy, the Ecocamp had outfitted all the showers with special biodegradable shampoo, conditioner, and soap.
Later in the evening, I returned to one of the core domes, and settled on a couch with a cup of coffee, my camera, my notebook, and a Torres del Paine flora field guide (the same one I’d seen in the shops but not bought; serendipitously, the Ecocamp had its own copy!). I spent a few geeky, happy hours looking through my camera for flower photos from the hike, then finding their identifications in the field guide and scribbling down their common and scientific names. I identified sixteen different species, just from today’s photos. (Should I post the whole list?)
Today’s excursion was the hardest hike I have ever done, as far as I can remember. It was 11.2 miles (18 km., or 5.6 mi./9 km. each way), and most of that involved trekking up or down steep rocky slopes. I left Ecocamp around 10am and didn’t return until about 8:30pm — almost 11 hours, although that included plenty of stops for photographs. I did believe from the start that I would be able to finish the hike, because I know how stubborn I am, but I’m nonetheless proud that I did.