A few weeks ago, three friends and I embarked on an epic journey with Chile Tour Patagonia from NYC to Patagonia, Chile. Several of us are turning 50 this year and we wanted a way to both commemorate it and show it who is boss (see The #Thisis50 Challenge and Prepping for Patagonia for more about that). Well, 5 days and 50 miles of hiking later and we met some great people, discovered a few things about ourselves, and learned an awful lot about the end of the earth.
Patagonia is far
As you can see on the map, we were about as far south in Chile as you could get. In fact, we were only about 600 miles from Antarctica (the distance from NYC to Charlotte)! We met an amazing woman on the flight on her way to Antarctica to do a documentary there. Her travels from Punta Arenas to Antarctica by boat, although only 600 miles, would take several days due to the rough seas of the Drake Passage.
Our travels began in NYC. We took a 10.5 hour flight to Santiago, Chile followed by a 3.5 hour flight to the south of Chile to Punta Arenas. Then we got on a bus to travel 3 hours north to Puerto Natales, where we spent the night. Puerto Natales is the closest town to the entrance of the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine and where most people hiking that park begin their trek. The next morning we got up at 6am for a 2 hour drive to arrive at the park entrance, where we were left with our packs and our hiking poles, to begin our 50 mile journey on the most popular hike in Patagonia, known as the W-Trek.
Hiking is hard
Three of the 4 of us were virgin hikers at the outset of this trip. While we trained for this (see Outdoor Training Goals: Patagonia), we are also New Yorkers who are used to walking everywhere and walk on average 5-7 miles a day. So, we figured, how hard could it be? Well, hiking is not walking! Hiking is traversing mountains, stumbling over boulders, balancing on rocks to get across rushing rivers, and dealing with the elements, all with a 20lb backpack on your back. Most of what we read on the internet from other hikers before our trip, said this trip would not be hard. While we very much benefitted from not having to adjust to altitude, I would not say this trip was “not hard” at all. We all finished with minimal injuries, but it was difficult enough that we were at times frustrated, surprised and challenged by what we encountered. We also met and spent much of the week hiking with 4 young women about half our age who were equally challenged. One was an experienced hiker from Australia, and she ranked the W trek an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 (one being an easy hike).
Carrying the pack was easier than we thought
While the hike was harder than I expected, carrying the pack, turned out to be easier. Before the trip, the thing we worried about most, was the weight of our packs. In fact, I unpacked and repacked 3 times to try to reduce the weight by a few extra pounds each time. On average, for 6 days of hiking, our packs ended up at about 20 lbs each, and not one of us felt the burden of it. In fact, we practically forgot they were there after a while. With the right shoes, and the right pack (see Packing for Patagonia (now with updates post trip for tips about packing), an additional 20 pounds dispersed evenly throughout your body, turned out to be very easy to get used to.
Irresponsible tourism can create devastating effects
Torres del Paine has suffered 3 major forest fires at the hands of irresponsible actions by tourists. The worst being a fire in December 2011 that lasted almost a month and destroyed 40,000 acres of land. It was started by an Israeli tourist lighting fire to his toilet paper. Strong winds in the region can easily cause a small act like this to create dire consequences that were still very apparent, even 5 years later. Overall, despite the numbers of tourists that trek through, we found the parks to be completely free of any sign of humans, which was amazing. Not an ounce of trash to be found!
The human spirit is fierce
We set a goal and we achieved it. We trained, we prepared, and we had no idea what we were getting into. There were many occasions where we felt we were in an episode of Hunger Games and the “people in charge” were conspiring against us. “Hmm – this hike is too easy, not enough action, lets bring on the sleet and rain and see how they react.” During the course of our 50 miles, there were moments where we faltered, wondering why we had embarked on this challenge. Each of us found our inner strength to complete the journey. And what an amazing feeling when we were done!
Patagonia winds are legendary
The weather in Torres del Paine is capable of passing through all 4 seasons in one day. Extreme winds in the area have become stuff of legend for hikers. Prevailing winds from the Pacific have been know to reach up to 100MPH, and are strongest during the summer season. We experienced them first hand while crouched down on a clifftop hanging onto a rock with our fingernails. Fortunately, strong gusts like that come quickly and don’t usually last more than 2 minutes – an amount of time that seems endless when you are experiencing it!
Why glaciers are blue
After hiking up to Grey Glacier, we had the amazing opportunity to kayak on Grey Lake. Here we got a closer look at some of the icebergs that had broken off of the glacier, including one the size of 7 football fields, which had broken off just a month earlier. What was so amazing was the bright blue color coming off of the glaciers. It was a color I had never before seen in nature. We learned that unlike red and yellow lightwaves, blue light can penetrate the snow and ice thereby giving it that bright hue.
True friendship is like gold
There were many times during the course of this trip where we each lost our footing – both literally and figuratively. Alycea and Jane started the trip with a touch of food poisoning (don’t eat the chicken avocado sandwich at the bus depot!) so that put a damper on the first day. Before we even started our hike, we had to have the driver of the van pull over so one of them could puke on the side of the road. Nicole, our resident cheerleader and the forever optimist, lost her pollyanna attitude (finally!) when the sleet and rain was pounding down for 90 minutes straight. I experienced my toughest challenges crossing the rivers and trying to balance from rock to rock without getting wet. As a group, there was the scary time we almost didn’t make it to camp before dark. Rising glacier waters blocked our path so we had to climb over 800 feet straight up and then back down to sea level just to get around the obstacle. Or the time we had to get up before sunrise to begin our journey with headlamps on just to make our connection to the next spot, all the while watching for hungry Pumas at dawn. During these moments, we learned the importance of trust. Trust that when we stumbled, someone would be there with a steady arm. Trust that if one of us got discouraged, another would be there to offer a kind word of encouragement. And trust that we were all in this together and if one person didn’t finish, we all didn’t finish.
Life is About Choices
I spent many moments thinking of this poem by Robert Frost on the trip. Life is about choices. Which road to take? Which direction to go? Which decision to make? Best to just choose one road or the other, but choose and move forward.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.