Torres del Paine, Chile. This was one of those places that had been on our short-list for years. Since we met, Colburn has talked wistfully of trekking in Patagonia. We always ogled over pictures of the terrain from our friends who had traveled there. As we were planning our entire trip, trekking in Torres became a pillar around which we planned the other South American experiences. We had researched possible routes, terrain, and logistics until we couldn’t possibly absorb any more information without actually going there. Colburn’s brother, Richard, schlepped a tent, sleeping bags, pads and freeze-dried food down from the US for us so we could have quality gear, not rental stuff. After great success in Colca Canyon and the Inca Trail, we were excited for our first unguided and unsupported trek. We were ready. We felt prepared.
We arrived in the park in the late afternoon after prepping in town for the better part of a day. We needed to supplement our freeze-dried dinners with breakfasts and lunches, buy new socks for the kids (their feet have grown a lot in five months!), and get the “hazardous materials” not allowed on planes (white gas, matches, etc.). The terrain was shrouded in clouds as we battled near 100km/hour winds to set up our tent, so we did not see the mountains. Sometime in the middle of the night, the winds died down and the clouds lifted to reveal the Southern Cross outside of our tent window and the early morning light revealed a phenomenal mountain landscape outside our tent. An auspicious beginning.
We were excited for a “day hike” to the Mirador Las Torres, perhaps the most photographed area of the park. As a result of our extensive research, we had decided that it was best to do this section as a day-trip without packs as it is considered the most difficult day of the trip. The hike to the Mirador is listed in most sources as 9.5 kilometers, an estimated four and a half hours of hiking. Not too bad we thought – a good introductory hike. I am not sure what part of my (Deb’s) brain was not working when we planned this because somewhere along the way, I forgot to include the time/distance necessary to get us back to our base camp! What we thought would be a relatively easy day without packs turned out to be the most difficult day of the trip. According to our GPS, we hiked a total of 24 kilometers (a little over 14 miles) and had 1,600 meters (4,800 feet) of elevation gain during the day.
Prior to this trek, our longest day was 16 km and our biggest vertical was 1,200 meters, but they were on different days during different treks. This beat both on one day. All of us were exhausted, our feet hurt, we were hungry. On the way down, Mac said, “I feel like I’m broken.” Lucia concurred with, “I think I’m getting moody because I don’t want to walk anymore.” We couldn’t have agreed more – it was a hard day and we were beat. We didn’t want to walk anymore either, but we did. Eventually, nine hours after leaving, we returned to our cozy camp and indulged in freeze-dried lasagna, Mac claiming that it was the “second best meal ever” – only behind our homemade lasagna. Two twenty-somethings we met later in the trek said that they ended up taking a day of rest the following day to recover after the “day hike” because it was that hard. We kept going.
The following days were less grueling. Although we were carrying our packs, we took time to enjoy the views. We stopped often for snacks and water. We adjusted our camps so that each day ended when we were tired, not when we got to where we wanted to go.
Sometime on day five at Paine Grande Refuge, a perfect stranger and his friends had watched us arrive at camp, set up the tent and make our way to the cooking hut with our food and cooking gear for dinner. He was a college student, as were his friends, at the end of their study-abroad semester in Santiago. Overhearing our obvious US accents, they hypothesized which state would grow “tough as nails kids” who would be running up and down the board walkways at camp after a day of hiking. They had narrowed the state down to California, Maryland or Texas. Pretty funny. When we told them that we are from Nevada, they were surprised. “We are all suffering here and your kids are running up and down the camp paths like it’s nothing.” He was the lone emissary communicating his friends’ observations of Mac and Lucia on a windy, rainy afternoon arrival from a day’s hike from Campamento Italiano, some eight kilometers away.
It wasn’t the first time we have been observed surreptitiously by strangers. Apparently, Lucia and Mac were the only kids carrying their own packs on the trail while we were there. Frequently, we received a higher degree of smiles and photos were taken of the kids by oncoming hikers or day-tourists. However, at Cuernos Campamento, on day three, we did cross paths with another family with kids of roughly the same gender and age. Deb sprinted back into the campsite as if she had seen a Leprechaun, excitedly saying to Lucia, “There’s another kid out there and she’s wearing pink! Go see!” Under the conditions that evening, we were more focused on keeping the tent from collapsing in the brutal 90km winds than we were with socializing with another family – something we would have dearly wanted to do under more calm conditions.
As an aside, the next morning several tents that had been present when we went to bed were simply no longer there in the morning – our neighbors (and their tents) seemed to have left in the middle of the night, possibly after the tents were destroyed by the winds. On day five we observed one camper trying to repeatedly wrangle his tent to the ground only for the wind to sweep it back up in the air. A few moments later we saw him stuff the collapsed tent and broken poles through a window in the Refugio in frustration. Rick Lowell posited the potential of Lucia in such a wind as, “experiencing a Latin version of the Wizard of Oz.” Perhaps. We never saw the family again – maybe they too were blown away.
We have been ruminating on a quotation from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” We found that conditions and terrain of Torres del Paine made us come back to this concept time and again. The weather and terrain was formidable and we made adjustments daily. We changed our campsites and the number of days at each. Each day we assessed our food: what to eat now, what to allot for other days considering some days were tougher than others. One day when we were supposed to have another “easy day hike”, we turned back after 500 meters on the trail into Valle de Frances because the rain and wind were drenching us and the view of the valley vanishing before our eyes in the swirling clouds and sheets of rain and wind. We took shelter under a tree in a rocky cove off the trail as we weighed our options. Lu and Mac were dauntless and the photo of them on the bridge, in the wind and rain with Lucia’s smile and Mac’s singular thumbs-up says it all.
Our job as parents was to insulate to a degree the kids from some of the more unnecessary obstacles. On one especially windy night, Deb and I lay in the tent plastered against the outer walls to keep the tent upright, periodically splaying our outer leg and arm out to support the tent walls from the force of the wind. All the night Deb and I would glance over at each other and fist pump as Lu and Mac slept through the windstorm without any idea of the gale that blew outside. This was the same storm that crushed other tents that night. By far the most demanding trek of our trip so far, Torres del Paine tested our expedition skills, but we kept it positive. On the day that I (Colburn) carried two packs on and off, we developed the mantra – “we don’t want any broken kids.” I happily carried the extra pack and would have done it for the rest of the trip knowing that keeping it positive and keeping the small doses of success coming into the kids’ experience is what makes the whole process rewarding and enjoyable.
We had done our homework, knew all the options and chose the right options as the weather, terrain and variables arose in our path. The result was a trip that we will not forget. Colca Canyon and Inca Trail treks had tempered us – fitness, alacrity, and lessons of how and when we are working best together. But it was Torres del Paine that showed us that a solid sense of humor is key. You’ll see by the increased “fun with photos” selections of our shared and unshared photos.
Mac and Lucia made funny videos, played with camera features and made mom’s head disappear under the water’s surface. Dad made facial contortions that even he had never seen before – that would be hard without a mirror. Mom broke two of our four outdoorsy Lexan sporks trying to extract peanut butter out of the Skippy jar – a valued gift Granny brought personally from the US at Thanksgiving. We all have made a formal decree that Deb is only to have metal sporks from now on. She says that she is going to mail the sporks back to the Swedish manufacturer with results from the “field testing”. The landscape made us feel small and vulnerable, but the solidarity of our family let us know that we are strong and durable.