Day 5 Los Guardos – Italiano 22.6km/7.5 hrs
For the first time of the trek, we were on a schedule, which meant a “start by” time. We needed to make it the full 22.6km by 3pm in order to ensure a camping spot at Italiano. Under regular circumstances it wouldn’t be such an issue; however one of the further campsites was still closed due to fire damage, bottle-necking all hiking traffic at Italiano. We weren’t keen on risking having to add on another 4.5 km to the day, we opted for an early departure. Fed well with oatmeal containing butter, almonds, dried fruit and milk, we started off at 7:30.
This was also a day where we needed to be cautious of our water consumption. Beyond the first two hours (past Refugio Grey), drinking from the streams was not possible due to ash contamination. When we reached Grey, we were kicking ourselves for not continuing on the previous day. Instead of the posted 2 hours, we hit the mark in an easy 45 minutes. There, we stocked up on a few dried snacks and chocolate as we were running low and set off. Immediately the lush green with its intermixed yellows, as the fall colours started to adorn the forest, turned brown, then black, then nothing.
Fires happen here with astonishing frequency. The latest was a blaze that latest 10 days from December 27, 2011, burning almost 13,000 hectares, leaving 7% of the park a mess of ash and black wood. Though the evidence was inconclusive, an Israeli tourist was charged with starting it with a cigarette on the trail. The trail had only re-opened a month prior to our arrival. Though it wasn’t beautiful, walking through this section we were able to see the devastation that a forest fire can cause. It was easy to decipher where the wind had carried the flames over water and rock to decimate the trees, grass and anything else in its way. Its gray smell dilated our nostrils.
We were making good time as we arrived at the edge of the burn zone. We took a quick break and continued onward. As the sun reflected the scenery, we were able to catch glimpses of where our trail was heading – into the French Valley, surrounded by enormous snow capped peaks. We arrived at Italiano with plenty of time to spare, by 2pm. We could have set up and hiked up the French Valley (one of the stars of the W), but my foot was burning and swollen, and it wasn’t getting better. Rumour had it that it was going to rain through the night and the next day, as a precaution we covered our tent in plastic and wrapped our bags.
I removed the duct tape from my toe and exposed the thick, white-yellow layer of dead skin. It was extremely sensitive as the new single layer of skin beneath had not yet built up resistance to pressure. By 4 pm the rest of our gang arrived. We bundled up for what was our coldest night so far. Warm milk and our camp stove was a saving grace to heat our bodies before trying to sleep. By now, we were used to crawling into our tent with cold, damp feet. We had it down to a science. Put on warm socks, worm into our sleeping bags and hope for the best. When your feet are that cold, the only way to get to sleep is to avoid them touching any other part of your body.. The slightest brush of a bare or even legging covered leg would send a chill through the skin that found its way to our core. We had to do our best to ignore it, almost as if our feet didn’t belong to us.
About an hour after turning in, the rain hit. We were lucky to stay as dry as we did, but it was cold. We slept terribly. We woke up miserable at the crack of dawn, maybe even slightly earlier but stayed in our sleeping bags tossing and turning, trying to stay warm. When first light hit, we decided it was better to get up and move than to stay still and freeze. Exiting the tent, we were able to scope out the damage from the rain, and it was still sprinkling and overcast. We were wet, our sleeping bags were damp, our clothes, socks, everything. The only dry thing we had was the roll of toilet paper we brought that was wrapped in plastic. The rain water had found its way through creases in the plastic tarp over our bags, eventually finding an opening and with the assistance of gravity, leaving our bags sitting in a puddle by morning.
Day 6: Italiano – French Valley 2.5hrs, 6,5km plus French Valley – Italiano 2hrs, 6.5km plus Italiano to Los Cuernos: 2.5 hrs, 5.5 km Total Day: 7hrs, 18.5km
The plan for the day –cook breakfast, pack a day pack, hike the French Valley and back, tear down camp and begin our trek to Los Cuernos. Joined by Laura, we sped up the side of the valley feeling light and quick without the weight of our full packs. The cloud cover was heavy, making it near impossible to see anything. By the time we reached the top Mirador for the valley, the cover started to lighten, but still hung low. We saw nothing. On the way back down, passing the first lookout, the clouds had lifted enough to expose the glaciers and fall colours in the valley. Although the view was not near what we knew it was supposed to be, but because we were only allowed to stay at Italiano one night, there was no chance of returning later in the day or the next. We would have regretted not trying, maybe out of ego and a need to complete the entire path, maybe driven by our love of movement and wishful thinking that the sky would open and reveal the view even for a split second. No such luck, we packed up and set out for Los Cuernos. We were the last ones to leave camp as I wasn’t feeling that great. Perhaps it was all the lentils, or dried food, but whatever it was, I was not comfortable.
I had tried to use the toilet at camp with no luck and ten minutes out of camp, I had to stop. My guts were screaming. I quickly dropped by pack and took myself 5 feet off trail, out of sight. Dale guarded the trail. Ten minutes of straight relief later, I stood up and rejoined Dale on the path. Any cow would have been proud of what I left on the trail that day. Now, a few kilos lighter, we found our athletic pace and carried on. The way was quick and uneventful. About half way down the path, we passed the rest of our unimpressed crew. It wasn’t a race for us, we were just more comfortable going quickly, plus our packs were nearly half the weight of theirs.
As we arrived at Hosteria Los Cuernos with the rain still falling from the night before. Our hopes that the sun would come out in order to dry our sleeping bags and tent weren’t entertained. It was decision time, we would be cold and wet in our tent, and we would have a worse sleep than the previous night as pretty much everything we had was wet. I considered the value of a good bed and the bourgeois comfort of the hostel, I wanted it. But our stubbornness won out. Instead of paying the ridiculous price for a hostel bed, we opted instead to rent a tent. Our rental camp complete with sleeping bags and dry mats. At least we could sit in the hostel, have a glass of wine, dry some of our clothes by the stove and warm up.
After a quick dinner of, yup, you guessed it, rice and lentils…. We crawled into the tent. It was damp and cold. We laid our own sleeping bags on top of the rentals, and committed the ultimate no-no. We light our camp stove inside our tent. Ahhh…. Warmth. We only needed it on for a few minutes while we changed into dry clothes and lied down. As we tried to sleep, it was obvious that our tent had been pitched on quite a slope. Though it was somewhat dry, warm and comfortable, we woke up every 30 minutes or so finding ourselves almost sliding out the door. We would readjust, and gradually slide back down, and so the cycle continued for the next 8 hours.
Day 7 – Los Cuernos – Campamento Torres: 6hrs/17.9km
By morning, the rain had stopped, and the sun was trying to peak through. We were still cold. The only remedy was to get moving. It didn’t take long for our backpacks to feel a hundred times heavier than they were. The first 10km of the trail was boring, that coupled with our fatigue and accumulated sleep debt, and it seemed to take forever. The only bit of excitement to add to the trail was skipping rocks on the lake and crossing a couple of fast, fierce glacier rivers.
When we approached the first river crossing, we saw that nobody was making it across without at least a good soaker. I decided to venture a little further upstream for a path less trodden. I crossed easily, and stayed dry. Downstream, Dale wasn’t so lucky. He tried to clear the last bit by making a jump from stone to shore. He fell short, ending up waist-high in the frigid water. A short break after to wring out his socks and shoes and we were off again. Fifteen minutes later, we hit the second crossing. This time, I wasn’t so lucky. On the final step, I pushed off a stone and slid right into the water. Damn that was cold. Thank goodness for wool socks. Again, a wring out and we were off.
This was by far my hardest day. I had a harsh cold that had developed over the last couple of nights and this day was the worst. Running eyes, sneezing, fatigue and a general unwell feeling took center stage until we reached a rest spot at Campamento Chileano. We were greeted by the Germans as they had left well before us. We decided to stay, eat and dry our clothing and pitch our tent and lie out our sleeping bags in hopes of a dry night ahead. It was a well earned 4 hour stop. Unfortunately, the rain started again, and we failed to dry our tent.
The next our up to Torres was a steeper, more interesting trail. Getting to Torres to sleep meant that we would have only an hour climb to the summit in the morning for sunrise. The Germans decided to end their trek at Chileano, and turn back. Though we knew the chances of the sky clearing for sunrise were minimal, we also knew we could bear one more night of misery.
Day 8 – Campamento Torres – Mirador – Hosteria del Torres (finish): 3.5hrs/ 13km
We woke up in blackness. The difference between our night wear and day wear was made up, primarily of shoes. We did this on purpose, so we would be quick to get up and out of the tent and to the summit before sunrise. The climb was a steep 45 minutes where we met up with the rest of the gang. Entertained by Laura’s reliving the visit she received from a puma during a toilet trip the night before, we waited for sunrise. After two hours, we knew that we weren’t going to get the view we wanted. The pinnacle of the past 8 days was supposed to be at that moment. Cold and tired, we hiked back down to camp, defeated and disappointed.
Talking about the trip on the way to the park exit, we did feel good. No, we didn’t see the French Valley, or the Torres, but we did have 8 days together. It truly was about the journey we went through together, as a couple, not about the destination. And we were looking forward to a hot shower and normal bed. The way down was steep. Exhilarated, we ran at times, barely breaking and not looking back. One thing we had decided during our many lengthy conversations on the circuit was a plan for the next few months. At different times we have both craved the comfort of home and the hugs and smiles of friends and family. We decided it was time to go home for a break. We would continue north to Peru or Columbia, then go home for the summer. Come September, we would say another temporary good-bye and fly to India. It was a change of plan, but one we were both excited for.
Our excitement for what lied ahead, and the pure feeling of accomplishment lit a fire under our heels when we saw our exit from the park. We sprinted the last 400m.
Back in Puerto Natales, we enjoyed our first shower in 8 days, and it was worth waiting for.
Summary – 8 days trekking, 130 km covered, thousands of meters elevation changes, 7 nights camping, 4 kilos of food consumed, all the gear to sleep, eat and trek carried on our backs, a windstorm, one very wet tent, mud plastered shoes, the biggest blister I’ve ever seen and my amazing husband to share it with . Torres del Paine Circuit was a balanced journey of spirit, grit, grime and thrill!