“I’m going on vacation for the last two weeks of March.”
“Where are you going this time?”
“Do you ever go somewhere normal?”
“Wouldn’t you be concerned if I did go somewhere normal?”
“You’re right, I would be.”
– a conversation between my coworker and I
Patagonia has always been on my bucket list and I have probably driven most of my friends, families and coworkers insane talking about how much I want to go there one day. I finally decided to pull the trigger and book my flight – being an opportunist, my parents were out of the country, they wouldn’t know that I traveled to South America by myself and I would be back in time with a suspicious tan, it was the perfect crime.
I did a google search of “things to do in Chile”and didn’t realize there was so much to offer. After doing the math, I knew I only had enough time to do the W trek in Patagonia and booked a tour through Chile Nativo. Because my decision to go was (in my definition) a bit last minute, I only had a few months to train myself for the strenuous hike. I had looked up recommendations but google pretty much suggested that I was f*cked and should’ve started three months ago. Why do I hate myself?
While relaying my concerns to my sister, it went along the lines of:
“You’ll be fine because I did the O trek which is longer without any training”
“How did that feel?”
“Like death but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it after the fourth day”
“I’m only hiking for four days”
“Oh, good luck…”
After completing the W trek, I can confidently say that I did not train enough for it. Rather than going to gym classes each week, it really should’ve been six hours of stair master each week. I was the youngest in my group but most definitely the weakest link.
Day 1: Las Torres
In the briefing with our guides, we were told that this was the most difficult hike in the program and if you are able to complete this hike, you should be able to do the other ones. In theory…
This was one of the most difficult hikes I have ever done and I have done pretty treacherous sh*t in Indonesia without the proper gear, in the dark and with a gas mask on. Due to the terrain, the hike to the Las Torres towers has some of the of steepest inclines combined with its length of around 21 km – this normally takes around 8-10 hours depending on how fit you are. The terrain varies from soil to gravel, streams, up to purely rocks or boulders towards the top.
At some point I had slipped and fell while coming down – a nice park ranger had helped me up but also said something not very discernible in Spanish that I could not understand (duolingo claims that I’m 39% fluent!). At this point, I decided to set a goal of averaging one fall per day. I also kept lying to myself that I’ll be back at the refugio in increments of 30 minutes in order to motivate myself. By the end of it, I could not stand properly as my legs felt like spaghetti. But the sweetest part was that the rest of the people in my tour group greeted me ecstatically when I arrived at the refugio and had waited for me to have dinner together.
Day 2: Los Cuernos
This was a “recovery” day with a hike to Refugio Los Cuernos consisting of merely 17 km and the terrain dubbed as “Patagonia Flat” – this meant up and down inclines but smaller. I was more amazed that I was able to stand properly in the morning – it was a miracle! I think it had something to do with the crazy amount of stretching I did the night before or maybe I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was, lol.
Halfway into our hike, we got a taste of Patagonia wind where it went up to 80 km/hr. The trick is to crouch down so you don’t lose balance so my goal quickly turned into not getting blown away.
We arrived just in time at Refugio Los Cuernos as the wind and rain really started to pick up. We were introduced to the cutest cabins but whenever the wind howled, the cabin would sound rickety. Once I set aside the mild possibility of the roof getting blown off (these things are built for this no?), I decided that this was my favourite accommodation.
It had its own fireplace which I later found out is quite the commodity, especially in refugios without heating. You can request for a fire to heat up the cabin just in time for bed time. My bed was directly below a skylight which had started to leak. Leaks set aside, my favourite moment when I randomly woke up at 3 or 4 AM in the morning and saw how clear the stars were. I tried really hard to stay awake like a kid past their bedtime to enjoy this but eventually my exhaustion took over.
Day 3: French Valley, Paine Grande
The guides had recognized how much slower I was than the rest of the group so we did a “shorter” hike, 15 km instead of the 18 km in the program. The point was that rather than killing myself to keep up, I would do a shorter hike to take it easy and enjoy myself. The rest of the group went to the Britanico Lookout point which is an extra 4 hours – apparently this is an amazing lookout point where you can see a panorama of the main features of the park such as the two horns, the back of the Las Torres tower, the French glacier and the rest of the French Valley from above.
I was perfectly content with my lower lookout point, you just have to tilt your head a bit more to take in the sights. I’m not the tallest so I have had a lot of practice from looking up to talk to people. The craziest part was how we could hear small avalanches from the French Glacier – you would hear some sort of cracking sound and when you looked up, there would be a small puff of snow in the mountains.
Day 4: Lake Pahoe, Glacier Grey
We got a taste of true Patagonia weather on our way to Refugio Grey. We were welcomed with strong winds and rain creating the perfect muddy conditions. It was only a 12 km hike but it takes approximately 4 hours due to the inclines.
At some point I mistook something for a rock and my foot ended up sinking into the mud. My new goal became to not fall into the mud. It’s funny because the days prior, I would diligently avoid puddles of water or mud but when it rains, you don’t have time to care and just walk through them as if they were dry. I just didn’t want to find out whether or not my hiking boots were waterproof.
When I arrived at Refugio Grey (still last but it only took me 3 hours and 45 minutes, yay to small victories), I found out that my kayaking tour along Glacier Grey got cancelled due to the strong winds. I wasn’t particularly sad or anything as the last thing I wanted to do was kayak for three hours in the cold and rain. I just really wanted to take a hot shower and nap until dinner time. I ended up doing a short hike to the Mirador lookout point to take pictures of the glaciers before this.
This was also the same night that our Australian friends taught me how to play a card game called Rummy. It is normally a 4 person game where each person has 10 cards but there were 6 of us so we had 7 cards each. The inner analyst in me convinced the group to have two deck of cards. The second deck was missing a few cards so we used the jokers in place of it. I swear every five minutes someone would ask “what’s the red joker again?”. I made a joke about how every time someone asks that question, that person has to take a shot. It got pretty intense afterwards.
Day 5: Boat Tour of Glacier Grey
Due to the weather, our guides had warned us the night before that our plans might change depending on the conditions. The Australians in my group had signed up for ice climbing but if the winds go over 70 km/hr, the tour gets cancelled. Now another detail is that we were supposed to take a boat at 2:00 PM but if the winds go over 60 km/hr, it is not allowed to operate. This brought up a bunch of different scenarios which became the topic of the night.
The scenarios were as follows:
1. Ice Hike is still on, take 2:00 PM boat, Hike 2 km on the beach
2. Ice Hike is still on but the 2:00 PM boat gets cancelled, have to hike back 12 km to Refugio Paine Grande to catch the 5:00 PM boat
3. Ice Hike gets cancelled, we try to reschedule our tickets to the 11:00 AM boat, hike 2 km on the beach
4. Ice Hike gets cancelled, all boats are cancelled, we hike 12 KM back to refugio Paine Grande to catch the 5:00 PM boat
Clear as mud right?
Thank goodness the weather wasn’t too bad in the morning and it ended up being scenario 3. I think I took pictures of the glaciers more than anything on this journey due to how close the boat got to them. This would’ve of been the perfect ending were it not for the 2 km hike along the beach afterwards to get to the parking lot. For whoever enjoys long walks on the beach, I’m sure you would recant your statement once you’ve had a walk on a Patagonian beach. It’s just all rocks and 80 km/hr wind. Our guides knew how heavy my backpack was and had even offered to carry some items for me but I kindly declined their offer because I secretly needed the extra weight to prevent me from being blown away (back to my goal from day 2).
Towards the middle, someone had pointed out the scenery just behind us of the Patagonian mountain range lit up by the sun. It was a bittersweet moment for me because I wanted to take in the view but also wanted to get off this godforsaken beach. Just as I started getting used to the daily hikes and found myself falling in love with the scenery, I was glad it was all over. I was ready to say goodbye to Patagonia.