We utilized a half dozen modes of transportation to wend our way to the end of the South American continent - train, plane, taxi, rental car, ‘chicken bus’ and foot. When we reached Puerto Montt, we mulled over taking a ferry to the ‘earth’s end’ but airfare was so enticingly inexpensive and, as an added bonus, it included complimentary cocktails on a spacious jumbo jet.
We felt like dirtbag jet setters.
The ‘end of the earth’ was gorgeous and windswept. The glaciated mountains to the north were stark beckoning sentinels on the horizon. We were in the land of Patagonia and the Argentinian Fitzroys - famous climbing destinations and mountain ranges. Tricia, Robert, Kent and I came to Chile for river adventures, but we journeyed to the southernmost end to exercise our legs.
The jagged peaks we could see from the hostel were called the Torres del Paine, part of the region’s most noted national park. “Towers of the Pain,” I thought, “Great.” Actually the origins of the name Paine were lost to the sands of time, but, in the end, when all was said and done, and often while it was being said and being done, it was a fitting descriptive term.
We had two objectives on our two month tour of Chile - visit Patagonia and raft the soon-to-be-dammed Bio Bio River. We weren’t sure what we would do when we reached the wind whipped terminus of South America. However, having seen the majesty of the iconic Patagonia peaks that inspired the logo of the well-known outdoor clothing and gear company, and learning there was a trail that circumnavigated those peaks, it appeared to be kismet to set out on that trail.
Robert, Kent and I were quite familiar with backpacking, though, as we were soon to discover, it was not our strongest outdoor suit. Tricia was a backpacking newbie, but when our plan was being hatched, she didn’t bother to emphasize that fact to the rest of us. We set out knowing very little about the circuitous trail other than there were supposed to be some European-like warming huts, and possibly, food options at said huts.
This false hope was the reason we hoisted our heavily loaded packs and headed down the trail with three days of rations on a trek supposed to take seven days we planned to do in five days. As I mentioned previously, backpacking was not the outdoor skill we were noted for.
The day was lovely with brilliant blue skies. The four of us excitedly walked the trail through a meadow sprinkled with wildflowers. Even though we knew we needed to make haste, the meadow enticed us to lie down and bask in the warming sun. Our first day on the trail ended far short of our intended destination, but, at that stage, we were neither alarmed or concerned.
We were having too much fun at Tricia’s expense. At camp, we discovered her backpack contained two pairs of heavy jeans and the novel, Sacajawea, which was essentially a cinder block disguised as a paperback. She had been struggling with her pack throughout the course of the first day and now we realized part of the reason. If she was carrying those items, what else might she have packed?
On the second day the trail abruptly took a turn for the worse. A wind storm had knocked over dozens and dozens of trees with ample girths and we spent a good portion of the day clambering over the fallen forest. And then the trail veered into a bog with exposed, criss-crossing roots interspersed with mud holes of indeterminate depths.
Indeterminate until I landed in one and found it to be nearly up to my armpits. By that time, Kent and Robert were well up the trail. Tricia was struggling with both her backpack and her hiking boots and I was trying to be chivalrous and helpful and not fall into any more pits.
When we finally emerged from the bog, we found Kent and Robert at Campomento Los Perros, or The Dogs Camp. It was on this grim evening, exhausted from the challenging terrain and the physical impediments strewn in our path, we came to the realization we were seriously shy on foodstuffs. Backpacking innocence lost…
What we had not yet lost however, was a sense of humor.
It was ‘gallows’ humor, but humor nevertheless.
For dessert, Kent carefully carved one of the few cookies into four tiny segments. Stomachs rumbled throughout the night.
The following day the trail began to climb up and over a pass. For some unknown reason, the masochists who created the circuit decided not to bother with switchbacks. Their preference was - virtually - straight up. As we approached the saddle of the ridge, we walked on bare stone littered with rocks and pebbles. Winds gusting off the glacier that snaked down the valley on the other side of the ridge were so stiff the rocks and pebbles skittered across the stone, practically airborne.
Once more, Kent and Robert jogged ahead. I walked sweep with Tricia. Her overstuffed backpack and nagging blisters had her hobbled.
For some reason, we believed lunch was with our comrades who had disappeared. Consequently, despite hunger, we pressed on. The trail on the opposite side of the ridge plummeted straight down into a spindly forest of alder-like trees. We literally were forced to grab trees alongside the trail like monkeys. My hands quickly became raw and even my gallows humor succumbed to misery.
We caught Kent and Robert blithely cat-napping in a forest grove where we had hoped to camp. We slung our packs to the ground and plopped down exhausted and ‘hangry’ - part hungry, part angry. While discussing our options, the giant trees swayed in the glacial wind. Creaking and groaning. Fallen trees surrounded the open forest floor designated as a camp. We opted to move on.
As it turned out, Robert had packed our lunches in our packs.
(To Be Continued.)