It is with a saddened heart that I write my last epistle of my magical adventure through South America. Tomorrow, I fly home to the United States, changed by my experiences here. This journey has surpassed all of my expectations, and all I can wish is that I had had the foresight to travel for at least another month!
I last left the story in Puerto Natales, the day before the start of my 4 night-5day backpacking adventure along the famous and fondly known “W” (named for the shape that the trail makes) in the stunning Patagonia National Park known as Torres Del Paine. After finishing my last email…it was almost time for the 3pm afternoon “talk” where the owner of the Erratic Rock Hostel, Rustyn, gives would be hikers the lowdown on the trail, what to bring, weather conditions, recommendations etc. I was pretty hungry, but all of the restaurants in town were taking a “siesta” and were closed. As hikers began to file into the room, a few of them introduced themselves to me- Franklin, from Seattle (!!!!), and Sven from Denmark. They were both planning on hiking “The Circuit” – a much longer version of the W that carries considerably greater bragging rights. I sighed. No hiking buddy for me – yet!

Svend was kind enough to share some bread with me which went nicely with my hot American coffee that I had been drinking nonstop since my arrival (this is what being exposed to Nescafe instant for 4 weeks does to you). Rustyn was an extremely entertaining fellow. I had discovered over breakfast that morning that he, his wife, and their two children had decided to pursue their ¨”American Dream” several years ago by packing up their lives in Oregon and moving to Patagonia to open this hostel and guiding service. During the orientation he humored us with funny anecdotes of the pitfalls that await the unprepared hikers: wearing too many clothes on the sunrise ascent to the Torres then having to turn back because they are so cold, freaking out when it starts raining as they haven´t protected their sleeping bags with plastic, trying to complete the hike too fast, carrying too much weight, and my personal favorite: thinking that Goretex is the miracle fabric that will keep them protected from the elements and allow their sweat to magically evaporate because its just “SO BREATHABLE”!!!

As usual with me, I was falling over myself laughing, and to my added enjoyment, so was Sven. At the end of the talk, I turned to Sven and said, “You have a sense of fun. I like you. We´re hiking together!” And he agreed! A few minutes later we had appended 2 others to our little hiking party (which was henceforth known as Team Guanacos 2008) – Franklin (who had also decided to forgo the Circuit) and a lovely German girl called Britta (who was henceforth known as Bitter Britta by myself…..Can you please pass me a bit of better butter Britta bitter??? ha ha!) We busily decided amongst ourselves with pen and paper (and me whooping with building anticipation of our adventure) what equipment we still needed to rent, and what items were necessary for purchase amongst us. It was clear from the start that Team Guanacos had a born leader…Sven, a serious mountaineer who had recently returned from an attempted ascent of South America´s tallest mountain, Aconcagua (which I always referred to as Anaconda as I couldn´t remember the damn name), and who is so irritatingly fit and made of muscle, that he was clearly choosing to hike the “W” as part of his cool down. He soon garnered the nickname of Papa Sven, at least from the girls! The rest of us were going to get our asses seriously kicked!

The rest of the afternoon was a hilarious parade around town..starting with a late lunch where we picked up a fifth member for our team – Meg from Massachusettes, who had come to volunteer at Erratic Rock for a month. We all paced around town trying to pick up trekking poles, trash bags, an assortment of groceries, batteries, caribiners, hats, sunscreen, and a rather screamingly funny attempt to acquire Moleskin at a pharmacy by pointing to our feet and saying “por nuestre piernas!!”. The next morning, Britta enquired if I had obtained the moleskin by asking me – “Did you manage to get the bliss preventation?” Clearly this also became a catchphrase for the rest of the trip… “Isn´t it magnificent?” “Yes! Its totally bliss preventation!!”

You get the idea.

After a very late night (imagine five people splitting provisions over a breakfast table, including getting a giant mixing bowl and trying to aportion dried milk, sugar and oatmeal into the right proportions for 20 breakfasts!) spent packing my pack, I went to bed around midnight too excited to fall asleep. The bus was picking us up at 7am. I was getting quite adept at early mornings: why do I only have a hard time with it in the States?

Breakfast was abuzz with excitement (at least for me, everyone else seemed rather miserable to be awake), and it grew when one by one, the rest of team Guanacos arrived in the lobby to await our bus. We had a lovely “before” shot of the five of us on the couch, and then we all piled onto the bus where I proceeded to annoy the shit out of everyone, and create suspicions of drug use due to my cheeriness. Together with Sven and Britta, I soon came up with what would be the theme song to our backpacking trip “Torres Del Paine!” sung to the tune of “everybody dance now!”. W! Let the winds blow you down….let the mountains move you….Sweat! Sw—-weat! Hope you´re wearing PolyPro! Leave the cotton behind! – To which we all dissolved into painful fits of giggles. This was going to be an amazing group of people!!

After an hour catnap, we arrived at the first stop and ran in for a quick pee (remember Britta?) and a coffee (well…a sip of coffee that we stole from Sven). Soon, the full magnificence of the park was before our very eyes and we were happily snapping pictures of the “Torres!” from the bus. The bus dropped us off a little early at the launch site for the catamaran across Lago Pehoe that would take us to the start of our hike. So we all decided to walk the 1km or so to a little waterfall just off the trail. This is where we got our first tastes of the bitter Torres Winds. Patagonia gets weather patterns hitting it from the Atlantic, Antarctic, and Pacific Oceans, making it one of the windiest places on earth. Hikers have literally been swept up and off their feet by it. Fortunately for us, that afternoon was the only time on the entire hike where we were subjected to its full ferocity.

Paranoid about missing the boat (the literal one of course!) I practically ran back to the launch. Of course there was nothing to worry about, and we were soon on our merry way, eating chocolate and peaches.
Off we set on our relatively easy first day´s hike of 11km to Refugio Grey at the shore of stunning Lago Grey. We whooped and snapped away photos of icebergs that had chunked off of the glacier and were now happily floating downstream. They were an amazing array of translucent blue color. The wind was still brutal until we finally descended into the valley that would be our campsite for the first night. We literally staked our tents on a beach that had a view directly overlooking the glacier beyond, and that contained thousands of tiny icebergs, all happily lapping at the shore. It was by far the best campsite of the trip. Ravenous, we all quickly got to work making dinner, several of us stealing a gloriously though trickling hot shower in the campground ( I know, you´re not really in the backcountry at any point on this itinerary!). Pasta, serrano ham, and white sauce never tasted so good. We were all pretty happy….and then Papa Sven produced a carton of red wine that he had hauled up for our first night of camping! We drank it greedily, using it to wash down hunks of chocolate that we´d brought for dessert.

Settling down for the first night was interesting…we decided that Meg and Franklin would share the two person tent, leaving Britta, myself and Sven in the three man tent. Once we were all in there, it for sure felt like a two man- we had to turn in unison it was so tight! But we for sure became the giggly tent, and dissolved into fits of laughter every night for a good hour or two before we could wind down enough for any shut eye. Britta:your English is excellent, please forgive us for sometimes laughing at your sentence formations! They were very entertaining…remember- “I didn´t want to go…its just too cliffy!”?

I slept surprisingly well despite my sleeping pad, which should have been called “the useless layer of foam that only gives you the impression that there is something between your hip bone and the cold hard ground.” Ouch. We got up quite late – had a yummy breakfast of oatmeal and blackberry jam, then headed up to the next camp which boasted a view overlooking the crevasses of the glacier up close. We left our heavy gear and headed up armed with just water. It was well worth the effort, and a spectacularly clear and sunny day! Upon our return, we enjoyed a second breakfast of eggs (that I had transported already whipped in a bottle), watched dumbfounded as Sven decided to go skinny dipping in the frigid ice water, before packing up our slightly lighter backpacks and heading back down to Lago Pehoe.

After getting about half way, it became painfully obvious that we had started our main hike of the day way too late, and that we would probably be forced to make our way to Campamento Italiano during and after sundown. By the time we got back to Lago Pehoe, it was already 7pm, my feet were hurting, and we had another 2 hours to go! Trying to stay focused on getting there…we all dug in and headed out, stopping only for chocolate to refuel, and to put on extra layers when the sun finally dipped below the horizon. I was so glad that Britta and Sven were with me at this point… I was close to tears having also just had the enormous fortune of starting my period!!! (what great timing, eh?) Sven tried to encourage me by saying “Just think that we’re Ninjas on a quest! Ninjas don’t get tired!”, to which I responded “Ninjas don’t hike!”, which had us all laughing hysterically. The one thing that succeeded in getting my mind off of the pain in my feet was singing. Britta and Svend requested many songs, and I sang any that popped into my head. In fact, for the rest of our journey, I sang for many hours every day. I gained the label of “organic ipod”!

The last 30 minutes we walked in complete darkness, and realizing that we had packed my headlamp in with the tent, only had two sources of light for the three of us. Our final approach to the campsite was a swinging bridge over a torrential river, which was´n´t at all scary by day, but that late at night after a 27km day, it was a little unnerving! We were relieved to find Meg and Franklin already at their site, and after quickly putting up our tents, enjoyed a lovely meal of tuna and rice, for the moment forgetting our foolishness for the late start.

We began our 3rd day at a reasonable hour and began our traverse up the Valle Frances sans backpacks. All through the night we had heard what we thought was thunder rumbling. Now we saw that the source of the thunder, was not lightning, but avalanches of snow and ice tumbling and crashing down the faces of the huge peaks around us. They put on quite a display for us all morning, cracking and creating huge plumes of powdered snow, and ¨”waterfalls” of snow. This valley was very awe inspiring, and we were rewarded for our tough hike from the day before with magnificent views and clear skies (again!) At the half way point, the group stopped to rest and take pictures. However, I wanted to go a little further, so Sven and I continued on for another hour or so to get a closer look at the top of the valley, while the group rested below. Heading back down to camp we quickly packed away the tents, ate a little lunch and strapped on our backpacks for the 3.5 hour sojourn to Los Cuernos, our lakeside camping destination for night 3.

The views here changed significantly to more rolling green hills-shrubbery and the beautiful lake and shores to our right. Several times, the trail led out onto a rocky beach which made for an interesting change of pace. Taking our time we arrived at the Refugio in time for one of the most delicious things a hiker can think of after a long hard day of hiking in the sun – a cold beer! We all raised our cans in unified joy.

That evening, we decided to treat ourselves to the dinner available to purchase at the refugio. First, we had to sneak into the showers which were not intended for use by the campers. The trick was just to look like you belonged there. Since the girls´ shower was separated from the men´s with a high wall, we had a fun time throwing my towel over to Sven for him to borrow (he had forgotten to bring one!). Add giggles.

After spending 20 minutes looking for Britta´s camera, and many games of “Shick shnack schnook” (which is German for rock paper scissors) to decide which of us was getting out of the tent to dislodge a rock that was jutting into Britta´s back, and who was going to fetch Britta´s water, we managed to get to sleep: after some very needed rubbies provided by me!
That night, we had the only rainfall of the entire trip. Hard to believe, no? Didn´t even have to get out the famous rain gear!

We set off on our fourth day with some trepidation: this was going to be the hardest day of the trek (the question was…”To be…..or what? in a Sylvester Stallone accent….you may have had to be there!), and all to be completed with our full backpacks! Once again, the scenery was refreshingly different, and we had to cross a couple of rivers in the morning. By mid afternoon the sun was beating down on us and we eagerly awaited the arrival of the secret trail that was a shortcut up to Campamento Torres. That shortcut led along the left flank of a beautiful little lake which we began to walk around. Shortly into the hike we met two older hikers coming out of the trail, saying that it was far too muddy for them to continue. Unfazed, we trod on through the slightly wet ground to the lake shore…we had decided to go swimming! What is a trip to Torres Del Paine without the obligatory half naked swim in a glacially fed lake?? The water actually felt really good and refreshed our hot tired sweaty dirty bodies…hmmm that sounds weird doesn´t it? After our swim, we laid out on our sleeping pad and happily dried off in the glorious sunshine.

Having taken such a lazy break in the day, it was even tougher completing our 3 1-2 hour slog up to Campamento Torres – our destination for the night before our pre-dawn summit day to the viewpoint of the Torres themselves. Going was pretty tough, lots of ups and downs, and just when you thought you were done…more ups!! Again, happy to get to camp, we washed by the river, set up camp and made a nutritious dinner of lentils, rice, tuna and spices. It was my idea to make creamy rice pudding after with the leftover rice, and that turned out to be a real hit! Delicious. We then all prepped our bags for our early morning, packing just coffee and breakfast, and room for throwing in our sleeping bags and pads to truly set up for the view.

Getting up at 5:30am was very strange but very exciting. Off we set into the darkness with our headlamps lighting our path…following the long line of headlamps that stretched up up up before us in a lighted procession showing the way to the base of the famous Towers. The morning air was bitterly cold, but only wearing two layers, we quickly heated up due to the pitch of the climb – definitely the steepest of the trek. The last section was a scattering of loose gravel and gigantic boulders…. slowly being more and more illuminated by the pinkening sky.

Finally we were at the top..and all of our fears about the predicted cloudy weather were dissipated when we saw the towers fully exposed in all their majesty brilliantly clear against the dawn sky. Interestingly, every other part of sky around us was obscured by clouds, only the towers themselves were clear. Our luck was beyond belief!!

Eagerly, we found a gigantic rock to set up our sleeping bags on, got all cozy and made hot coffee and oatmeal. It is a meal I will not quickly forget. I have only felt a truly spiritual connection with somewhere in nature twice before in my life: Denali, and Uluru in Australia. This was the third. Truly “Nature Porn” -as Sven liked to call it!

We spent over two hours at the viewpoint taking an abundance of photos as the towers changed colors as the sunlight hit them in various places. Soon it was time to bundle back down to the campsite, pack up, and hurry down to Hosteria Torres in time for the 2pm shuttles back to the bus.
It was a relatively hitch free descent, only marred by our growing realization that our adventure was coming to a close. It had been marvellous, and our group had grown close.

Happily, we arrived an hour early – in enough blissful time to pack down some hot panini sandwiches and cold cold beer in the Hosteria´s restaurant. That meal brought tears to our eyes and glee to our aching muscles and smelly butts. Utterly magnificent.

In fact, we were all on such a high, that by the time I got on the minibus for our transfer, I was completely giddy and started singing at the top of my voice, dancing in my seat, and waving frantically at the hikers we passed on the road… Ah! Good fun!

And so ended our epic journey. We all promptly passed out on the 3 hour bus ride back to the hostels, and then took the best shower of our lives before going out for an enormous celebratory meal of steak and wine.

I must finish there as I seem to have gone on for quite long enough. If you stayed with me this long…I thank you for sharing the journey!!
I will write to you about my time in El Calafate and Buenos Aires when I get back to the States this weekend.

Hope to see you all soon!

Much love!