As the rain hammered against our window and freezing wisps of wintry air seeped through the tin-lined walls of our Puerto Natales hostel, we lay huddled under the thick down duvet quietly questioning our decision to spend three nights camping out in the Southern reaches of Chilean Patagonia. Of course, given that our bags had been packed and repacked, equipment hired and bus tickets bought, there really was no going back. Come 6am, we were scurrying around the dimly lit room looking for odd socks and anything else that might have fallen under the bed, before dashing outside to board the waiting bus.
Three hours later, we were deposited at the Western edge of Torres Del Paine national park, an enormous expanse of UNESCO acknowledged biosphere reserve encompassing glaciers, grassland, forest and mountains. In peak season, this hikers’ paradise sees thousands of visitors ferried across the sapphire expanse of Pehoe Lake and into the heart of the park. It is from here at the Paine Grande Hosteria that many commence their journey along the “W” trail, a 70km odyssey through a kaleidoscopic range of spectacular vistas. Whilst the onset of low season meant we would avoid the hiking hordes, it also meant that many of the usual campsite facilities were closed. Additionally, the ferry does not operate, so we would have to carry our tents and all of our food an additional 17km to the Paine Grande starting point.
As luck would have it, Zeus and Aether crowned our first day with dazzling sunshine. After some frantic rummaging through overstuffed backpacks, pessimistically buried sunglasses were retrieved and donned. After an initial pause to take in the humbling panorama of the snow-capped Paine massif etched against crystal blue skies, we quickly struck out towards it. Scarves and sweaters were soon being peeled off as we joyfully strode across the rippling yellow grasslands, past grazing herds of thick-pelted Patagonian horses and into the wilderness.
The scenery was truly breathtaking and the walking was thoroughly enjoyable. We felt a little like Tolkien’s Hobbits at the start of their quest – fresh, well fed and excited, but also a little wary of the challenge ahead. The unpredictability of the local microclimate is legendary, and in spite of our best efforts, we were not quite certain of our preparedness.
After a brisk 3.5-hour walk, we arrived at Paine Grande. Our intention was to take a brief rest, then continue a further 11km up the track to Gray – a campsite nestled in the shadow of the eponymous glacier. As we approached the lodge, a number of tents nestled nearby came into view. The place was clearly not as deserted as we had been led to believe it would be. Only when we entered the communal cooking lodge, did we learn that most of the tents belonged to a transiting troop of young British soldiers, on exercise from the Falklands. Expecting to be told they’d just come from some off-road adventure in the wilds of the park, I asked them where they’d been.
“Camping, next to the glacier”, came the cheerily gruff response. “The rats ate our rations. And it was (expletively) cold”. Resolutely filling our flask with a litre of hot soup, I could only hope that the rats had eaten their fill.