I have never experienced childbirth (other than my personal entry into this world), but have been told that it is one of God's greatest miracles. Apparently, the mother soon after experiencing the pain and trauma quickly forgets and is ready to endure the process once more. If it weren't for this lapse in sanity and memory the human species would have ceased to exist long, long ago.
I think Torres Del Paine was my practice run at childbirth. When I was going through it, there were times I could think of nothing more than getting out of it and of course by then it's too late. Clearly there were times that I was overjoyed and in my euphoria fell in love with the park, almost giddy with the beauty of it. I had my moments of trial and told myself that I would go back and make peace. I knew that I would be spending a decent amount of time here in Puerto Natales and would have a chance or two to get back. But the way I hobbled out of there with Robert, I figured it would be weeks before the thought would genuinely cross my mind again.
Wouldn't you know it? I was wrong. It was only a matter of days before I was itching to get back. I was in the hostel talking to all the new groups of faces coming and going. I was answering questions about the park, selling tickets to get them there, recommending routes, storing gear...it was non-stop, absolutely relentless, park, park, park, park, park. The weather was all of a sudden perfect. I mean, not a cloud in the sky, a nice cool breeze, postcard perfect. People were coming back sun-burned! I kept hearing that the weather was totally unusual, and that guides have never seen anything like this. Before I knew it, I was scheming ways to get back. I was eating, drinking, sleeping, and cooking with plans of the park milling in my mind. I had to get back. It was like that itch you aren't supposed to scratch...but it would feel so good!
Bill had left town for a couple days. Julie had left to go to the park with her sister and some friends. I was there by myself, having a blast at the hostel, but looking with longing out the window at those clear blue skies and wondered what the French Valley must look like on a day like this. I never got to see it with Robert, and even if the weather had been clear, with the funk I was in, I'm not sure it would have mattered.
When Bill came back he told me that I should take advantage of this weather and head back into the park to see the valley. I didn't give him long enough to think about what he said, agreed and ran out the door to stock up on food. The following morning I would be on the 7:30 bus to the park for at least 3 days maybe 4. I was like a little kid packing my backpack to go back. It was like I had completely forgotten about the moment where I wanted to cry and cursed myself for agreeing to go in the first place. All I could remember was the beauty of the place; the burning, the pain, the cold...that was some distant inkling of some experience a long time ago. It couldn't have been THAT difficult, I was just being dramatic.
Morning came and I flew out of bed. My bag was packed the night before, I ate my hearty breakfast, and was waiting for the bus to come. Here it comes! I waved goodbye and skipped out the front door with a cheeseball grin plastered on my face. I scanned the sky and noticed that there were some clouds in the distance...but nothing too serious. I also noticed that there was a bit of breeze. I shrugged it off...it'll be fine I told myself. It will be perfect.
Oh silly rabbit. Fast forward 2.5 hours.
I'm walking down the trail, the wind is getting stronger, it's a little chilly and it's starting to rain. It's fine, I tell myself. It will be fine. The weather will change and it will be beautiful.
Fast forward 1 hour.
I'm still walking down the trail, the wind is something out of hell, it's miserable cold, it's heavily raining, my clothes and shoes are completely soaked and water squishes out when I step...and I still have at least 3 more hours to go before I get to the first camp. I am alone, so I can't even complain to anyone. Yeah, this pretty much blows. What the hell was I thinking?! There is a line from Forrest Gump when he is in Vietnam that kept playing in my head: "a little bit of stinging rain, big 'ol fat ran, rain that flew in sideways, and rain that seemed to come up from underneath." It actually hurt to get hit with this stuff. With the power of the wind behind it, it felt like little rocks pelting my face.
So there I was, just like I wanted...but not. I spent days thinking about coming back, then I got there, and was already trying to figure out how to get out! Isn't that just the way things always go?
I picked up the pace. I just wanted to get to a camp and figure out what I was going to do. My original plan was to hike all the way from the administration to Campamento Italiano...but with the weather I was considering stopping at Paine Grande. I was wondering how in the world I was going to set up my tent alone in that wind. The rain was annoying, but the wind was enough to blow me over, how was I supposed to set up my tent?! I kept looking up the sky to see if there was a break in sight. There was nothing...just a blanket of grey with no end. Shit! Why did I want to do this again?!
The view along this path is supposed to be amazing. But every time I looked up all I got was smacked in the face with stinging rain. Super. Really, this is just fantastic.
Then, just like typical Patagonia, the rain stopped. The clouds were still there, but at least the rain stopped and the wind was turned down about 4 notches. I stole a glance from my hooded jacket to see if I could see anything. Nope...those might be mountains, but I can't tell. Head down, keep walking.
It got lighter. I looked up. HOLY MOTHER OF LUCIFER! BAM!! There are the Cuernos. I stopped dead in my tracks, my arms went limp, my jaw dropped and eventually the corners of my lips turned up creating that thing called a smile. So that's what I was walking toward. Wow. I forgot all about the wet and the cold. I forgot about my plans of retreat. I was staring in wonder at this amazing thing in front of me.
The trail was almost to the mirador (lookout) of the infamous Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Lago Pehoe. Parts of Paine Grande were still covered in clouds but they were rolling and changing form so fast I could see what was below them. Lago Pehoe was more incredible than I remembered. The blue of it, it seems fake. If I could pull out a 150color crayon box I'd find this color blue labeled Caribbean Turquoise and even that wouldn't do it justice because it looks like the light is coming from within, like this lake glows.
I took an obscene amount of pictures of the water, of the Cuernos, of Paine Grande in its changing cloud jacket (unfortunately I lost all these pictures so I can't upload them to share). I kept walking and felt almost renewed...the wind had picked up a bit, but I didn't mind, it helped my clothes dry a bit faster. Actually, my pants were almost dry again. My shoes, well, there was no helping them, but slowly I was beginning to thaw. The rain wouldn't make up its mind, and the sky would spit rain and stop, spit rain and stop, just enough to keep me wondering. But in all its indecisiveness I could see the sun. Maybe this day will turn out alright.
By the time I got Paine Grande I was ready for a break. I had been walking for 4.5 hours and could use a snack. I picked a nice spot with a view of the lake, took off my shoes, wrung out my socks and insoles and laid them out to dry. I took a look at my toes; they were all white and pruney. Yuck. Let's leave those out to dry too. I took off all my outer layers and spread them out on the grass and bushes for the sun and wind to dry them. Out came the trail mix and the kindle. Why not just sit here for a while and enjoy the break.
It was a bit shorter than I anticipated. The sky started that spitting rain thing again and I figured I should just get to camp and set up in case the weather turns really foul again. So I put back on my wet socks and slid the wet insoles back in my boots, re-layered with my damp clothes and kept on.
It's amazing how much I didn't remember from my first time walking this trail. If I didn't know any better I would say that I had never been there before. There are glaciers there? There are waterfalls there? There are Cuernos there? No way?! I had no idea. Given my mental state last time I walked this path and the fact that it was raining and completely hidden in clouds it's no wonder I didn't recognize the trail until I got to that bridge. I remembered that bridge. I remembered that bridge well. Last time we met I knew it signaled camp. It meant the end of walking for the day. It meant rest. It was an emotional meeting, me and that bridge. But this time when I was walking across it I could see the beginnings of what made the "French Valley" and I was praying for a clear day the next day. This, I could tell, was something spectacular.
I set up camp quickly, fetched water, and started my stove to make dinner. It was raining again. Just finish cooking and then crawl in the tent to eat...and well, go to sleep I guess.
Female Stranger: "Hola. ¿Estas sola?"
Me: "Si." nodding my head.
Female Stanger: "¿Completemente sola?"
Me: "Si." still nodding my head
Female Stranger: "¿Estas cocinando? Quieres cenar con nosotros? Vale, venga, siente aquí con nosotros. Hay espacio. Venga." motioning me over.
Me: "Ok, déjame un segundo para terminar calentando esto, y me voy."
And this is how it starts. I make 3 new friends that night. They are a group, 2 guys and 1 girl from Puerto Montt in Chile. They are doing the W-trek together and saw a girl sitting alone and their Chilean hospitality just couldn't let that happen. They tried to feed me, offer me coffee, tea, dessert. They gave me a blanket to use and served me up dessert even though I declined the offer. The blanket was amazing and the dessert was nice too. They were just curious about me and wanted to know all kinds of things. What was I doing? Where was I going? Why was I alone? Where had I been? Why was I there? Where was I from? What is that like? How do I like Chile? We were only a couple questions in and then it got really cold. Clearly the only logical thing for us to do, was for all 4 us to crawl into one of their 2-person tents, sit cross-legged, share some blankets and continue the conversation. This is what I love about Chile. This is what I love about this culture. Instantly you are welcomed and instantly you are part of the family. It's a wonderful thing. Before I knew it, it was 11pm and I wanted to get up early the next morning to start the hike. So I said goodnight, and walked the few paced to my own tent.
The wind howled. It shook the trees. Giant chunks of ice would fall off the glacier in the valley and avalanches would roll down the rock face. I heard the drops of rain hitting like pellets on my fly. I would wake up and listen. Damn it sounds nasty out there. I dozed off again.
Morning came, and I unzipped my fly to find the most glorious morning.
I was almost in a frenzy packing my backpack for the day. I wanted to eat breakfast and get on the trail as quickly as possible. If there is anything I’ve learned down here is that nothing lasts as far as the weather is concerned, and I wanted to take full advantage of this day. So I loaded up my backpack with food, water, snacks, my kindle, layers of clothes and my camera. My Chilean friends were slow to get moving so we said goodbye and I thanked them for everything before heading up the trail.
I made peace with that valley within moments of seeing it. No wonder this is so many people’s favorite part. You pass by a powerful river that is fed from a glacier hanging from a sheer rock face. On the other side is the dramatic view of the two-toned Cuernos. Keep walking up the trail and you pass through bosque (forest), high lakes, pampa (grassland), and then finally walk up to a rock valley that is completely surrounded with dramatic rock towers. On the way down the trail you have a sweeping view of the lower valley including Lago Nordenskjold. I spent the whole day up there. I took a nap and would wake up sporadically to see that the light had changed on the towers, smile to myself and doze back off. The only sound was the wind in the tall grass at my feet, the constant flow of water on rocks and the occasional call of birds.
I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, so I just enjoyed every second of being there. I was blessed because the weather didn’t change, it stayed perfect all day. A thin layer of high clouds created interest behind Paine Grande and I watched them shift. The sun was strong and the afternoon shadows created drama in the Cuernos, exaggerating the depths of the cracks in the rocks and ice. Eventually I decided it would be wise to make my way down. The sun was sinking low in the sky and it would get cold. I had eaten everything I brought up with me and dinner was waiting for me at camp. Whatever challenge I’d had with trek was now definitely of a thing of the past. All I had for it was love and respect. What a wonderful place. How could I ever not love it?
The next morning I packed up camp and walked back to Lodge Paine Grande. I was debating catching the noon catamaran or the 6:30pm one. If I took the noon catamaran then I would have time to do another hike with a view of the Cuernos from across Lago Nordenskjold before having to catch the last bus to town. If I took the 6:30 then I would be able to hike the trail partially back to administration and see what that trail looks like on a clear day. I was torn.
I thought I would make a run for it. If I was lucky I would be able to get far enough down the trail to see the view of the valley AND make it back in time to catch the noon catamaran. I left my backpack at the lodge and just took some water with me and started a steady trot down the path. It is so easy to run without a backpack on. Patagonia may just make a runner out of me. I imagine a decent pair of shoes would only make it that much better. I kept my eye on my watch and realized when I was a good distance away that I still had a bit further to go and there was no way that I would be able to make it all the way there and back in time. So I did the only logical thing...I sat down in the middle of the field and looked all around me and laughed. All of this was here all along and I never knew it. I never saw it. I was too wrapped up in being wet and cold and pissed off…and all this incredible stuff was happening just behind the clouds.
After a nice long rest, I slowly started walking back to the lodge. On the way I stopped to watch 3 condors. They were way off in the distance and were making their way towards me. I watched them disappear behind a ridge next to me and thought nothing of it. Then all of a sudden I heard this WHOOSH, WHOOSH like an airplane overhead. I looked up and it was the condors! They flew right over me, maybe 15-20ft overhead. They are huge! I had never seen them that close before. Then they all three landed on a rock maybe 30ft away. The 4 of us just stared at each other. That lasted probably 15 minutes or so until they were scared off by someone coming the other way on the trail. I took it as my hint to keep hiking too and watched the condors until they were little specks in the distance before heading back to the lodge.
I had a couple hours to kill before the catamaran. Lucky for me I had my kindle handy and set up a little nest for myself in the grass with a stellar view of Lago Pehoe with its surreal blue waters and read. Before I knew it, it was time to board the boat. From the deck of the boat I watched the Cuernos, the French Valley and the dramatic peak of Paine Grande change color in the early evening sun. These last two days were too perfect. Is this place real? Is this just a dream?
It was with a little bit of sadness that I looked out at those beautiful forms across the lake. I was well aware that this might be the last time I get to see them before I have to carry on with the trip and make my way out of Patagonia. But at least we made peace. We made things right between us. The remnants of hard feelings had melted away with the sun and dusted off with the cool breeze. Looking across that lake, I tried to sort out the emotions that simmered inside. It's a combination that is hard to peg: blessed, reborn, empowered, humbled and so, so grateful.