My alarm wakes me at 3:30am on 1 January 2014, only a couple hours after I zipped into my bivy bag. I lie quietly and listen; nothing. It isn’t raining and the wind has stopped, perfect!
Next I find my headlight and cautiously peel myself out of my waterproof shelter. I sit up and look around. I’m camped in a small forest and there is snow falling softly across the beam of my headlight, but looking up I can see a few stars between the trees.
There should be a sunrise and I make the tough decision to get out of my sleeping bag. I have 2 sets of clothes; hiking clothes and ‘clean’ clothes. It’s near the end of the trip so I can no longer tell the difference between the clean ones and the hiking-in ones. Its also well below zero degrees – I’ll wear all of them.
About 500 vertical meters above me – about a 45 minute hike – lies a laguna and the base of the three towers that give Torres del Paine its name. The three granite slabs stretch vertical, going straight up almost 2,000m from the laguna. I’m going there for the first sunrise of 2014.
Torres del Paine National Park covers a large part of southern Chile. It stretches from the Argentine border west and south into the second largest ice field on earth outside of the poles (Greenland is larger.) The park is about 1,600km north of Antarctica and is buried in snow most of the year.
The map of the park shows many short hiking trails spreading out near the park entrance. However, the holy grail is the 120km loop encircling the mountains containing the towers. A couple hostels and shelters litter the bottom of the map near the park entrance. The top of the map – the back half of the circuit – is remote and few venture out there.
Leaving my bicycle behind in El Calafate and going further south with a small backpack by bus I’d made the transition from cyclist to hiker. The cycling part of this adventure was complete; but there would still be 120km of mountains, glaciers, snow, mud, rain, sun and experiences to discover on foot.
First, I needed to do some repairs. Wilson, my backpack, which has had more than it’s fair share of adventure, started coming apart at the seams. A huge needle and dental floss kept things together for what would probably be Wilson’s final adventure before retirement.
I’d stepped out of a full bus and into the rain alone at the park entrance five days earlier. The others would continue another hour to the park’s main hotel and do the shorter circuit from there. I hadn’t come this far to sit on a bus any longer than I needed or to see a hotel; the rain on my face felt great as I began the next part of my adventure.
The weather forecast was, unfortunately, accurate – heavy rain in the morning. There would be some rain everyday but I started in the worst of it and it could only get better from there. Soon I’d be knee-deep in muddy marshes anyway and the rain would be irrelevant in comparison. Wilson and I named these muddy stretches of the trail the ‘swamps of sadness.’
The weather cleared in the afternoon and I made it to what would be the best campsite on the trail – Refugio Dickson – next to a lake and at the foot of the biggest pass along the circuit. It was my birthday and when the Chilean guy in charge of the campsite found out and heard I was South African, he sang me a piece of Die Antwoord’s ‘Enter the Ninja.’ He couldn’t speak any English (or Afrikaans) but he knew those lyrics!
Day 2 started with a long gradual ascent up a valley before the trail kicked straight up climbing about 1,000m through scree and snow. It was also the only day where I would be concerned about my safety. Somewhere around midday the trail ended suddenly in a muddy patch of trees. I’d lost the trail I was supposed to be following. Retracing my footsteps a number of times I couldn’t find a way through the trees and out in the direction I should be going.
I needed to get over the pass and drop down the other side (to where there would be less wind and positive temperature) before it got dark. I took a short break, studied the map and contour lines closer and eventually found the correct trail again.
Fortunately, losing the trail turned out to be a non-event which had only cost me maybe 45 minutes. It was, however, a good reminder of how quickly things can go wrong in the mountains, and if they did for me, that I’d be alone and need to find a solution. The reminder came at a good time – the trail was about to ascend into scree and snow and climb out of the trees and into the Patagonian wind.
I climbed the pass safely. The other side dropped down to Glacier Grey. Grey is one of the larger glaciers protruding from the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field into habitable terrain. Looking west along the glacier one can see part of the ice field which stretches away into icy nothing-ness and eventually becomes sky.
The campsite near the glacier does kayak trips and I spent the night there. The next morning I paddled right up to the glacier, past huge icebergs that had broken off it over the past few days. I was told the water was constantly between 2 and 3 degrees. Falling out of the kayak was not an option.
That afternoon I left the campsite and headed towards where the full circuit joins the shorter ‘W circuit.’ The remainder of the hike would be more crowded but also on better maintained trails and with more regular access to coffee and warm food. A couple more days took me to December 31st and the last valley of the circuit which lead up to the base of the towers.
Starting up the valley there were two options. One is to leave your pack at the campsite at the bottom of the valley where there is a restaurant and showers and hike up to the towers and back in a day. The alternative is to take everything to the top of the valley and spend the night in the most basic of campsites. Sleeping at the top of the valley would make a sunset or sunrise mission to the towers possible.
I decided to spend the last night of 2013 at the top of the valley and to do both sunset and sunrise. There weren’t many hikers camped at the top campsite, and even less that were awake at midnight. We shared the few half-bottles of wine that had made it up the valley and demolished whatever chocolates or rations had survived the hike up to this last night.
A couple hours sleep and then a short line of headlights made their way up to the towers to watch the first sunrise of 2014.
Dropping back down the valley away from the Torres I would start my journey back to civilization and then to Cape Town. A few hours down the valley I passed the other campsite and could get a hot breakfast and coffee. Later I would arrive at the park entrance where I had started the circuit 5 days earlier. From there I’d hitch a lift back to the Argentine town of El Calafate with a French couple in a 4×4.
Approaching El Calafate my phone would jump to life when it found a patch of reception. Many luxuries which we usually take for granted would follow – a shower, milkshakes, wifi, sheets, burgers, shelter from the wind, clean clothes and skype.