A Life Lesson From Torres del Paine

Disclaimer: The story described below is based on writer’s point of view. Kindly note that writer has no intention in pointing fingers or blaming, but sharing her story so others can be aware of the possibility for having similar experience.   

Torres del Paine had my heart since National Geographic introduced me on their Instagram. The three towers standing gracefully hypnotized my conscience. I made a promise to myself that one day I will be there, standing in front of the towers, at the one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Torres means tower, while paine means blue. Torres del Paine are the distinctive three granite peaks of the Paine mountain range or Paine Massif. From left to right they are known as Torres d’Agostini, Torres Central and Torres Monzino. They extend up to 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) above sea level, and are joined by the Cuernos del Paine (source: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy to reach Torres Del Paine National Park (TDPNP). Even though Chile is free visa for Indonesian passport holder, but I still have to fly across multiple continents and oceans for nearly 8400 miles or 13,500 km from where I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia.

In the end of year 2017, I took 1.5 months off from work to go to South America. I used to call it: a bucket list trip. The plan was experiencing Inca trail in Peru, exploring Chile from North to South, and enjoying the Galapagos. I missed to visit Bolivia and Argentina due to visa issue for Indonesian. I never thought that completing 4 days of Inca Trail then continued conquering 5 days W trek of Torres del Paine was ambitious.

“Know your limit” and “Never underestimate Mother Nature”. Those are two of top rules for every hikers. Compared to Inca Trail (you may read my story in this post), everybody says that the W trek of TDPNP is easier (at least that what’s I read from people’s blog). The trail itself, altitude, highest peak, or degree of difficulty can lead to a perspective: If you can beat Inca Trail, you will conquer W trek of TDPNPTurns out, it was my biggest mistake. I did underestimate Mother Nature. 

All about W trek – Torres del Paine National Park:

First thing to do before exploring TDPNP: Choose the trek. You can choose W trek (around 5 days) or O trek (around 10 days). Specifically for W trek, several blogs wrote that real hikers will choose W trek from West to East, so they can see the towers on the final day. Save the best for last. Usually they hike very early in the morning to experience sun rises and shines the towers. However, Lonely Planet suggest the opposite way. They said it’s better to do W trek from East to West with a clear justified reason: If something happen to you, at least you have seen the towers. I chose to start W trek from East to West. The journey plans to complete +/- 92 km in 5 days:

  • Day 1 (+/- 17 km): Puerto Natales – Laguna Amarga (by bus) – Las Torres (by shuttle) – Campamento Chileno – Base de Las Torres – Campamento Chileno (camp day 1)
  • Day 2 (+/- 21.5 km): Campamento Chileno – Las Torres – Los Cuernos – Campamento Italiano (camp day 2)
  • Day 3 (+/- 19 km): Campamento Italiano – Mirador Frances – Campamento Italiano – Paine Grande (camp day 3)
  • Day 4 (+/- 23 km): Paine Grande – Refugio Grey – Paso – Refugio Grey (camp day 4)
  • Day 5 (+/- 11 km): Refugio Grey – Paine Grande – Pudeto (by catamaran/pudeto) – Puerto Natales (by bus)

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When to go: As Chile is in southern hemisphere, the peak season is usually in Summer which would be around October – April (the opposite with northern hemisphere). I chose mid January to go to TDPNP with expectation of less extreme weather.

Where to stay: During Summer, the park will be full of hikers from all over the world. Hence, it is mandatory to book camp site in advance. You are not allowed to enter the park without having confirmation where you will be staying. Basically, there are two operators in TDPNP: Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur. Camp sites in west area run by Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur in east area. There are some free camp sites run by CONAF, but they have very limited space. You need to make reservation at least 6 months ahead. When you have decided which trek you will take, next thing to do is to book camp site. You can choose to stay in warm lodge or experience staying in tent. There are two options for camp site, just rent the site or rent site plus the tent. It depends on your budget. For my journey this time, I booked Campamento Chileno (by Fantastico Sur), Campamento Italiano (Free by CONAF),  Paine Grande and Refugio Grey (by Vertice Patagonia).

What to bring: Everyone experienced hiking in TDPNP said, you can have everything in one day. It means you will experience sunny day, strong wind (up to 100km/h), or even snow storm in a day. Weather can easily change in a minute. You need to prepare for the worst. Bring layered clothes, rain jacket, and lots of socks. If you stay in either Vertice Patagonia/Fantastico Sur camp site, you can book meals in their restaurant. But if you want to save money, you can bring your own food and cooking set. In Campamento Chileno, you must book full board meals (D,B,L). While in Vertice Patagonia’s camp sites, you have an option to choose full board meals or single meal.

How to hike: Self guided is allowed in TDPNP. The trail is so well established and full marked that give less possibility for someone to get lost. The operators even have a joke: If you get lost, you must be very stupid. If you don’t want to think anything but yourself, expect to spend at least US$2000 for 5 days W trek. The tour operator will prepare and bring everything for you. All you need to do is prepare yourself and enjoy the view! Porter only option also available but will cost you US$ 200/day. My friends and I decided to do self guided and bring our own stuff (meals, clothes, and tent).

My W trek story: 

The initial plan was to do W trek of TDPNP in 7 – 11 January 2018. Only a week after completing Inca Trail. Sounds ambitious? Indeed. I have to admit that I was over confidence to have Inca Trail and W trek completed within 3 weeks. I know my limit very well but I think I was underestimating W trek at that moment. I was so focused on how I can survive in Inca Trail and put W trek as “refreshing trip”. Even most hikers said W trek is doable, no altitude at all, suit to any fitness level, but still never ever underestimate mother nature.

When I chose to do self guided and bring everything I need for 5 days, a question popped up in my mind: Can I do this? Because in my entire hiking life, I always use porter to bring my stuff, pay guide and crew to set up tent and cook proper meal. I should have listened to my heart and think logically.

The day before the journey, my friend and I went to an outdoor store, we plan to rent tent and sleeping bag. I was surprised when seeing the sleeping bag, it’s thick and big. Since my carrier volume is only 30 L, that sleeping bag will definitely take half of the space. Me and the girls decided for not renting the sleeping bag (yeah, you can call us stupid). The lady from the store taught us how to build the tent. One of my girl friend, let’s call her “A”, offered herself to carry the tent along the trek. She’s a runner, completed marathon several times, so we assumed she’s the most fit person among us. What about food? Half of camp sites ordered us to buy meal from them, so it will be only 1-2 days that we should cook the meal. We tried to make it simple, we only bring peanuts, dates, chocolates, and dried food.

We left the hotel at 5.30 AM to catch the bus to Laguna Amarga. The hotel owner was so kind to keep our luggage while we do the W trek. The bus journey took 2 hours. After registered in the National Park’s office, we used shuttle bus to go to Las Torres, the gate to National Park. The trekking started at 9.30 AM. For me, it’s already late. Some people in the group want to have cup of coffee. In the name of togetherness, we started to trek when they finished.

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The distance between Las Torres to Campamento Chileno (camp site day 1) is +/- 6 km. Due to elevation, it took me 4 hours to reach the camp. It was very bright sunny day with full of hikers along the trek. I felt so exhausted. Inca trail really drained my energy. (I should take longer recovery before taking this W trek). However, the view along the journey was beyond amazing! worth every effort!

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From the camp site, it takes another 4 km to Torres del Paine with elevation up to 2500 m above sea level. One of my girl friends, let’s call her “B”, decided to stay at camp site. She felt pain in her back/spine. As the sunset will be at 7.30 PM and the weather was fine, I decided to continue trekking. I can do it, I still have time, that what I said to myself. I put my backpack in base camp and only carried small backpack to bring water, chocolate, and rain jacket.  Five of us started to walk at 2.30 PM and 10 minutes later, I realized that I was separated from the group. They were so fast. Have I mentioned that all 3 men (let’s call them C, D, and E) in my group are runners, cross fitter, gym junkie? So you can imagine that no matter how hard I try, I will always be the last person in that group.

After 1 hour, the weather changed. It was starting to rain. The sign showed that I still have 2 km to go and I never thought that it will be a unforgettable 2 km in my life. There was no flat trekking path after that sign. It’s all rocks, big ones so I have to climb it. And it’s not easy since the rocks were so slippery due to heavy rain. Most people already hiked down and there is only one way path, so the trek was so crowded. The higher I reach the peak, the less people hike behind me. Where are the group? They were far away in front of me. I kept thinking how can I climb down these rocks, there’s high possibility for me to fall down to the valley beside the path. I need someone, a partner to climb down with me.

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I need one hour to reach the peak and finally, the beautiful Torres del Paine is standing in front of me. I met my group up there and I asked the boys to climb down with me. I feel unsafe if I climb down by myself.  I didn’t ask A because she carried her large and heavy backpack (I don’t know why). I only spent 5 minutes in the peak and start to climb down. Ten minutes later, I realized that the boys were gone. I still saw A’s red rain cover but 5 mins later, she’s also gone. I was alone, left behind in those pile of rocks. Few people still at the peaks but I can’t wait for them because I don’t know how much time they want to spend in the peak. So, I prayed and start to climb down, slowly and carefully. Sometimes I cried. I was so afraid. Finally, I did it. I did reach the flat surface one hour later.

Before entering the jungle, I met a boy. I think he waited for his family who are still at the peak. The rain has stopped and it’s almost dark. I walked into the jungle, tried to follow the path, and 15 minutes later I realized that I was lost. Remember what I said earlier about guide’s joke: If you get lost, you must be very stupid. Let me tell you one thing, when you are in my situation: super exhausted, lack of sugar (have I told you that I have diabetes?), panic (since it’s getting dark), completely wet, no one with you….it’s okay to get lost. You are not stupid. I feel you.

I almost cried when realizing the situation. I took a deep breath and started to remember about the boy whom I met earlier. I need to go back to him at that entrance. I was forcing my brain to recall the track and finally I met the boy. His family just arrived from the peak with the man whom with me when climbed up the rocks. “Can I go with you?” I said. “Where are your friends?”. They were quite surprised when I said “They’re gone. I think I was left behind”. “OK, come with us, let’s go to the camp”. I didn’t know who they were but I will never forget their kindness. They were willing to wait for me every time I feel exhausted and want to take water from the river. “Don’t worry, we stay together”. I feel blessed at that time. We reached the camp one hour later. I was crying. Tears of happiness and anger.

After having dinner, we tried to get sleep in the tent. It was raining again and freaking cold. No sleeping mat, no sleeping bag. I just prayed that I can survive this night. I decided to go back to the city in the next morning. I don’t think I can go through the next 3 nights with this condition. I was physically and mentally feeling dropped. I’m no longer have trust with my group.

Never crossed in my mind that I can leave my friend behind when going trekking/hiking. Even though I need to get to the toilet or my shoes get so wet that all I want is to be at the camp as soon as possible.

What do I say to my friend’s parent if something happened to her/him? Pretty sure the police will ask me on the first place, “why did you leave your friend behind?”.

I will never have thought to send ranger to find my friend, in case she/he does not return to the camp before dark. Not that I trust rangers’ skill, not that I’m sure my friend will not die before found by rangers, I just could not do that.

My friends said, true hikers never leave their friends behind and the strongest person in the group should walk the latter. No matter how strong you are, you are not allowed to hike alone. Similar to diving, you always need a buddy.

I’m fully understand that we should be responsible for ourselves. If you think you can’t go on a hike with all limitations you have, don’t go. Everyone has their own fitness level. It’s really a main concern to be aware of. You can’t assume other people are as fit as you. But do you think that asking someone to walk with you is too much? just walk side by side, not carrying me along the trek.

Have your ever heard the quote that if you want to know someone very well, go travel with them. Get to know your partner is an important thing before you travel. Choose your trekking partner with the same fit level as you, or at least someone who is sincerely willing to accompany you, for better or worse.

Hiking is not a competition. It’s not about who will be the first to reach peak. Enjoy the journey, try to feel the breeze. The mountain will not go anywhere.

Sir Edmund Hillary once said, it’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves. Moreover, our ego.

I feel no regret for having this traumatic experience. It’s really makes me who I am now and then. I always believe in karma. Good and bad deeds will return to you someday, don’t know when and don’t know how.

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