And this is how it went…
As an inexperienced or “unseasoned” hiker, it would be accurate to say I had no idea what I was getting into. Some people I met along the way said that I was brave for doing a trek like that alone. I believe the word they were looking for was uninformed or perhaps naive. That last one tends to apply to a lot of my adventures.
An important lesson I quickly learned was that as much as I might’ve read about what it feels like to do a first multi-day hike, I couldn’t really know until I was in it. And with no practice hikes leading up to the big day (big 5 days), I was in for a lot of firsts.
Two things to understand about Patagonia:
Wind. Holy hell there’s a lot of wind. I spent the third day hiking through a storm, and I thought several times that I was going to be tossed over the side of a cliff.
This wasn’t your average Saturday morning nature walk in the park.
The Torres Del Paine route could get rugged. On the free talk one of the hostels was giving before I left, our speaker cited a guide, complete with full hiking pack, literally getting lifted off the ground and moved meters away. Patagonia isn’t messing around when it comes to wind.
Hills and Mountains. Remember that thing I said about reading but not knowing? Well. Anyone with any experience hiking a lot of ups and downs through the mountains will tell you that the downs become just as hard, if not harder, than the ups. It’s true. With that much extra weight on my body, I was feeling like every joint from my hips down was going to give out— knees, ankles, even toes. By the fourth day, I was more eager to reach uphill stretches than downhill ones. I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me that would happen, but there it was. I could handle my heart and lungs having to work harder, but my knees on the downhill were just done.
That said, of all the travels I’ve done in my entire life, this hike was in my top 5 experiences at least. But I appreciate and celebrate it in the way one might appreciate and celebrate parenthood. There are times when all you can do is get through it. You make a lot of mistakes, get hurt and also transformed, learn in what often seems like the most difficult ways possible, and spend a lot of time asking yourself, Why?? But the moments where you understand the answer to that question make every other moment worth it and maybe even beautiful.
Also, sorry I just compared a 5-day hike to parenthood. Not the same thing. Obviously.
Moving back to the fun part: how Patagonia kicked my butt.
From day 2 to day 5, I was asking myself if I’d really get to the end. I spent hours imagining excuses for cutting the trek short. Sections of trail were treacherous, even for seasoned hikers, and my tennis shoes weren’t close to cut out for the job, and there were, after all, really pumas sighted on the hill overlooking the second night’s campsite.
Tennis shoes were a truly horrible decision. I didn’t have hiking boots because I wasn’t planning on doing a hike when I left home in July. More experienced hikers said a new pair of boots would take too long to break in (read: my feet would be covered in painful blisters) and an ill-fitting rented pair would also be a bad choice (read: more blisters).
So I avoided the blisters! Yay! I also slipped down a muddy stretch of steep trail thanks to no traction, slipped crossing a rapidly moving stream and perfectly landed my knee onto a rock, and spent a lot of time hiking in soaked tennis shoes with my sad, wet feet. But, like, I avoided the blisters. It’s better, right? They said it would be better?!
Honestly, I have no idea. All I know now is that I’m buying hiking boots and breaking them in before my next hike.
In the end though, I made it. Despite falling (twice) and thanks to the timing of the major bridge collapse mid-trail (the day after I’d crossed it) I was able to complete all 5 days, about 100 km, the rushing river crossings hopping stone to stone and the trails along mountains with sheer drops and howling winds. I finished intact, with only a swollen ankle and a limp.
My daily hiking times ranged from 4.5-8 hours, starting off “easy” and building to the longer days. The park had indoor cooking kitchens (big rooms with a few long tables and a sink) at each camp to prevent outdoor fires. These became the social spots after the day’s hiking.
There were so many other long-term travelers on extended holidays, or having just quit a job or finished school. And all those personal stoves on at the same time fogged up the windows and turned the kitchen into a sauna. With night temperatures dropping into the 40s and lower, this was a beautiful thing. We were spoiled with a warm shelter out of the high winds, and the tents only a short walk away. I was relieved to find that my tent kept me surprisingly warm through the night, but maybe it was also the down jacket and -3º sleeping bag.
Mornings were quick breakdowns and pack ups and breakfast with a view. A daily rhythm developed almost immediately. I filled my rain shell jacket pockets with all I’d need during the day so I wouldn’t have to get into my pack more than once. Then I strapped on my backpack full of the rest of the necessities and set out.
Never in my life have I carried so much weight so far. I’m amazed a house and sustenance could weigh little enough to carry on my back, but every day I was sore in new places. I tried not to take off my pack during hikes, because as soon as I did my muscles and bones said, we are never picking that thing up again. I reached a new level of soreness and a pain threshold that I first mistook for injury.
There were also trail sections that would’ve made me nervous without a heavy backpack, parts where I couldn’t look down if I wanted to keep going. I would’ve frozen. My first day back at the hostel in town, I tried to nap but kept waking myself up with dreams of slipping off trail edges and down the sides of mountains.
The third day of hiking was the worst, nonstop cold rain and high winds. Trails were muddy and flooding (this was the day I slipped). I had 7 hours of hiking to do, and they were 7 long hours.
But the views.
Every other day, I was able to break for lunch at some lookout point with expansive views over lakes of glacier runoff, snow-topped mountains, and rolling hills zigzagged with walking trails. No picture could capture the experience, but I did try. Each paid campsite overlooked a new, confidence-inspiring wonder of the park, and it was like I entered camp each day a new person.
The views, the tent that provided complete relief from the wind, the warmth and new friends in the kitchen. No matter how challenging or doubt-filled the hiking had been, arriving at each campsite made the next day’s work possible again. No matter how many times I told myself along the way, I won’t make it to the end, arriving at camp was what made me say, I will.