A couple of days in Ushuaia to cure our Antarctic hangover was just what the doctor ordered. I remember feeling like this at another point in my life. It was directly after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. I was a volunteer at the Games, an insider in the hockey world, with athletes and administration. Not only that, I was a Vancouver resident. For 4 years I slowly watched my beloved city get torn up, knocked down and re-routed, then come to life as an unparalleled spectacle during the two weeks of the Olympics. Everyone in the city was high (and I’m not talking about the soft drug laws). The energy in the city created a buzz I had never experienced previously. The climax of the excitement certainly was watching Iginla pass to Crosby, and then with the oddest shot ever, sneak the puck past Ryan Miller in overtime to give Canada the Gold in Men’s Ice Hockey. I didn’t care that I was sitting in the US athlete’s section of the arena. It was electric. The celebration that took place that afternoon and well into the night, in the streets of Vancouver, hit headlines globally. That win secured Canada’s 14th gold medal of the Games, a new record for the most gold medals ever won by a single country at a winter Olympics. The day after, Monday March 1st, I woke up with a tremendous feeling of “what now?” ; I walked down my street with the sensation of walking into empty space. I felt lost. I had just been through a life altering experience, impossible to put a price tag on, an emotional ride that overloaded my endocrine system to utter exhaustion. We called it, “The Olympic Hangover”. It lasted a good two weeks, when life just seemed bland and uneventful.
Recalling the strangeness I experienced 2 years ago, I knew the only cure was to lay low for a couple of days and let it all sink in, then move on and be grateful for the memories the experience has given to me. We did just that. Gabby helped us source out a reasonably priced private room in Ushuaia (no small feat there). As a newly-wed couple, just having spent 10 nights crammed in a triple cabin on the boat, it was a must. Our last evening in Ushuaia, we met up with our new friends Gabby and Sarah to share stories and say farewell, before catching a 15 hour bus into Chile.
I remember seeing a picture of Parcque Nacional Torres Del Paine in a travel magazine over 10 years ago. I fell in love with the picture; so much so that I asked my sister-in-law, a talented artist, to put it on canvas for me. I have had that painting on my wall at the end of my bed ever since. Before I got married, aside from the digits on my alarm clock, it was the first thing I saw when I woke up each morning. That day, with the magazine, I promised myself I would go there. Seeing the ferocious spires wasn’t what this vow was about, but hiking the renowned W-Trek. Despite having heard from recent visitors that it wasn’t worth it because of the recent park fires causing trail closures, Dale and I both knew I would feel ripped off if we left South America without trying it. So, in Puerto Natales, that was exactly what we planned for.
By the time we arrived in Puerto Natales, the town that feeds the park, it was too late to think about organizing ourselves to start the trek the next day. Instead, we spent two days ensuring we were ready. I am an avid hiker, and frequented the mountains in BC multiple times per week to get my fix while I lived in Vancouver. However, both of us were carrying an extra 5-7kg underneath our clothes, thanks to the food and our glutinous behaviour onboard the Clipper and Dale hasn’t done much hiking at all. Actually, besides the few small hikes we had taken so far in Argentina, he’s done none; which is why I was surprised when he was the one that recommended we do the entire circuit instead of just the W. It would be an excellent way to get rid of the extra poundage that recently took up residency on our buts as well as get me a good hard-core hiking fix.
The W-Trek is famous. Of course, this fame means that it attracts a lot of people. It’s set out as a 5-day trek for the average person, however most people can easily do it in 4. The W contains the highlights of the park – Valle de Frances (The French Valley) and the 3 Torres Del Paine (Towers of Paine). It also hosts more luxurious refugios and hosterias, to suit the less rugged travelers (my policitically correct way of labelling wimps), where you can sleep in a bed and have dinner served to you, complete with your drink of choice. The trail is marked out such that it’s even possible to day trek to the two stars of the show, without carrying any gear through elevation changes and dismissing the need to spend even one night in a tent.
The Circuit, which includes the W, incorporates the entire backside of the park, allowing different vistas each day on the east side of the mountains. It requires double the time to complete. In a conversation Dale and I had had previously regarding the trek, he committed to the 4 day W , but said he would be bored going for any more than that. I remembered that and put aside my instinctive desire to take in the whole 8-10 day circuit.
In order to become more informed on the conditions of the park, we attended a free briefing at a cool café and gear rental outfit, the Erratic Rock. The briefing was excellent. It answered all of our questions about gear, weather, and the treks. Koon, who led the briefing highly recommended the entire circuit “if you have time.” Time? Absolutely we had time. I gave Dale the final decision and honestly let go of the need to cover the entire park. Dale’s decision for us to spend 8 days trekking and camping, came from a place of logic. “we’re here now, and will likely never come back. No regrets. Let’s do the whole thing.” I didn’t let him see, but I did have a little party in my head when I heard those words. Now, what did this mean? First, it meant deciding to camp the entire time along with cooking all our own meals. It also meant, we needed gear.
If you remember, we bought a tent in Uruguay, but without a fly, we would get soaked if it decided to rain. In 8 days, of which, each meant winter was closer, we needed to be prepared for that. After making a detailed list of what we would need and doing the math on renting vs. buying – we decided to buy everything we could. We grabbed a sleeping bag from the free gear box at Erratic Rock (though we had no idea of its temperature limits), bought a used stove out of their rental stash and stocked up on our needed 1500g of fuel. After a couple of hours spent looking for and buying used gear, we’d checked everything off of our list. A trip to the local dried food store for snacks and spices, coupled with a supermarket visit and we were set. We were sure to be as close to exact as possible with what we needed as we would be carrying everything required on our backs, in the mountains, for eight days.
This translated into each of us brining only 2 sets of clothing, one wet for trekking and one dry for night, with an extra long sleeve hoodie. We did the same for socks. We opted for one pair of shoes, in lieu of the recommended two (it’s all we had) to go with our trekking poles and summit day pack. For sleeping, our tent with plastic and rope, a sleeping bag and bed roll each, and our Arc’teryx jackets for pillows. For cooking: Stove, 3 x 500ml cans of propane, swiss army knife, one pot, 2 plastic bowls, a lighter, 2 spoons, 2 plastic cups and 2 water bottles. For eating: dry oats, rice, dry lentils, one pkg 400g pasta, plethora of dry sauce mixes, spices, dried fruit & nuts, chocolate, 4 pcs fresh fruit, powdered milk, instant coffee and a stick of butter. All of this along with the obligatory sunglasses, gloves, toque, headlamp, baby wipes (our shower) camera and a park map. We were happy to hear at the briefing the water running down from the glaciers all over the park was drinkable. This meant we didn’t need to carry it.
With our packs packed, and the remainder of our belongings in storage at our hostel, the next morning we boarded the local bus for the park.