Day 2 of a 4 night, 5 day trek through Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, I was in over my head. After hiking 17 miles that day to Grey Glacier, I had developed a cold and a swollen ankle. Returning to camp was no such relief as we learned of an impending rainstorm. Some background information: we are not seasoned backpackers and our tent had no tarp or footprint underneath it. Visions of waking up in cold puddles of rain flooded our minds and we anticipated waking up sore, cold, sick and having to carry 30 lb packs on another strenuous hike the next day. “How are we gonna do that?” the 4 of us wondered.
A year ago, my friends proposed an idea: a backpacking trip to 5 countries over the span of 3 months. It took a day to convince me. The next year of planning and saving brought anticipation and doubt, fantasizing and excitement. I felt compelled to go but still wavered between embracing my decision and feeling totally selfish. I felt guilty about leaving everyone I love, my home and my job, but I also knew that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and take the opportunity. We researched and planned a route from Patagonia (Chile and Argentina); Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Bolivia, Peru, then Colombia.
So there we were at step one of our journey: Patagonia. Specifically Torres del Paine National Park. There are many ways to see the park but we naively opted for the W trek, a 4-5 day journey. We also could have stayed in expensive refugios (hostels) but took it upon ourselves to haul our tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, kitchen supplies, stove and food along with our clothes and miscellaneous backpack contents.
Day 3: As sore as we were, we pushed onward from Camp Paine Grande to Camp Frances. As we made our way through the rain with swollen knees, throbbing hips and achy shoulders, our spirits faded to gray. Our ultimate low was when we reached camp for lunch, pulled out the veggie sandwiches we had bought from the camp market and, still shivering, took a mouthful of soggy bread, cheese, baby corn and iceberg lettuce. We wondered which part qualified as a vegetable.
We had a bad taste in our mouths from Camp Frances and decided to, instead of ending our day then and there, take ourselves further down the path to Camp Los Cuernos. This meant another 2.5 hours of hiking tacked on to our 3.5 hour day.
We continued on under dripping trees. I learned that hiking for hours at a time is a lot like a puzzle, constantly looking at which rock to step on, which path to take and thinking about how to move your body and adjust your pack to alleviate pain. I straggled behind the group and turned to my typical comforts for distraction and motivation, music and podcasts. I queued up an interview between Oprah and Cheryl Strayed, the author of “Wild”. She talked about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself with zero backpacking experience. She hiked 1,100 miles and lost 6 toenails. She said as she traveled, the world expanded and became her home. She said, “We can all bear what we think we can’t bear” both about her monster of a pack and the burdens in her life she hiked to overcome.
As our path leveled out, we found ourselves at the shore of a gray/ teal lake. We sorted through the smooth stones on the beach and laid down for a moment. Rain misted my face as I closed my eyes. Andrea skipped rocks by the water and Julia and Janelle looked for rock souvenirs. We resumed our climb back up the mountain for a short time before we reached Camp Los Cuernos, our home for the night. We were warmly greeted by staff who showed us to our campsite on a platform uphill from the main campsite. As we pulled out our tent, still damp from the night before, we were struck by where we were. We found ourselves nestled in the mountain between two waterfalls, above a greenish blue lake that glistened with reflections of the surrounding mountains. Clouds tapered off into the mountains, weaving like ribbons. Janelle slipped away for a minute and returned with a shocked look on her face, "Guys... the bathrooms".
She described her findings: hot showers, a wood burning stove warming the communal kitchen, and a homey bar with a pisco sour deal... what more could we want? After our showers, we went to the kitchen and sat by the wood stove. A couple of hikers dried their shoes by the fire. We boiled water for our pasta dinner and I studied the large map in the center of the room. I took note of places I had never heard of before, I thought about the rest of our trip and I thought about where to venture next.