Shelly, Will and I flew into El Calafate, Argentina which is part of Patagonia, the Southernmost region of South America.
Since it is so far South, it is best visited during the months of December to February.
We decided to spend a week there as it would be a shame to be so close yet not go there and we weren’t afraid of the cold weather (at least not yet!)
El Calafate is one of those towns that you can´t help but like. It is small and touristy but that is part of its charm.
Shelly described it as the kind of town you come across before you embark on a big adventure. I thought it resembled one of those cute little towns that you find in Canada.
From El Calafate, we visited the Perito Moreno Glacier.
This glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world that is growing and one of the main reasons why people travel to Patagonia.
Our first views of the glacier were in the early morning from the main lookout post.
We were a tad disappointed with our photos since most of the glacier was still in the shadows.
While we may not have been in the ideal season to visit Patagonia, we considered ourselves fortunate to be there during autumn.
The leaves on the trees had just changed colour and were a stark contrast to the glacier.
We signed up to go on the ‘BIG ICE’ trekking tour with Hielo and Aventura.
They run a day trip to the glacier which involves walking for an hour and half through the forest and then 3 hours of ice hiking on the glacier before returning to base.
We hopped on their boat from the main tourist centre and sailed for 15 minutes to another section of the glacier.
The views of the glacier kept getting better.
The sun had completely risen by that point and was so strong that our naked eye couldn’t quite pick up the blue hues in the glacier the way it shows in my photos.
The 1.5 hour walk through the forest was marvellous. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the colours were
We hadn’t done any trekking since Bolivia so it felt wonderful to be outdoors in the fresh air.
We had about 15 people in our group which was a very manageable size.
Everyone was blown away by the beauty of the glacier.
I could hardly bear to tear my eyes away from it as we walked.
The last 45 minutes of the walk through the forest was uphill and I was surprised by how much I had missed that familiar burn in my quads!
The contrast of the autumn leaves against the glacier has got to be a photographer’s dream.
Once we reached the ice, we were given crampons and harnesses to wear. Both Shelly and I had very nice looking guys helping us put on our crampons (hence the big smile on my face).
The harnesses were super sexy but I really hoped there wouldn’t be an occasion where it was needed.
We set off on our hike across the glacier, looking for lagoons and crevasses.
There were plenty of opportunities to pose for cool photos.
We were given instructions on how to walk properly with crampons. We had to step with our weight distributed evenly.
We had to walk with our feet wide apart and were told not to walk sideways in case we rolled or twisted our ankles.
We were told not to run, especially when going downhill. In fact, the trick was to walk downhill slowly, planting our feet hard and squarely in the ice and keeping our knees bent and soft.
Although we were walking in a group and talking amongst ourselves often, I found plenty of time to lose myself in my surroundings.
Not surprisingly, hiking across the ice felt like we were getting a workout, especially since we were in a squat position every time we walked downhill.
If it wasn’t for the fact that we had to keep gloves on at all times and cover our arms and legs, I would have been perfectly happy walking in my T-shirt.
Sadly, we weren’t given the opportunity to use the ice picks, which was probably wise as Shelly’s hand isn’t quite recovered yet from her World’s Most Dangerous Road fall.
We had packed lunch on the glacier before making our way back to base and onto the boat again.
The next day we caught the bus to Puerto Natales in Chile. This town is the gateway to the Torres del Paine National Park where Shelly has wanted to trek for a long time now.
It’s officially out of season so all the refugios are closed and our only option is to camp and carry our own food. As far as I was concerned, it sounded like an adventure of a lifetime!
Unbeknownst to us, the day we arrived in Puerto Natales was labour day so everything was closed, including the grocery stores. We had no choice but to wait around for an extra day in order to get all our food supplies.
I really didn’t know much about Torres del Paine National park other than the ‘Towers of Paine’ which gives the national park its name.
I also knew the weather would be cold and unpredictable with very strong winds.
We stayed at the Erratic Rock Hostel which I highly recommend. We went to their information session where one of the owners went through the classic W trek with us, the gear and food required and things to watch out for. Apparently mice at campsites has been an increasing problem for campers.
Half the fun in preparing for the trek was planning our meals for the 4 days in the park. We planned on doing the 5 day ‘W’ trek but we had lost a day already because of labour day so we decided to skip Glacier Grey and trek for 4 days instead.
We hired two tents, 3 sleeping bags, cooking stove plus butane gas, two pots and a bowl, spoon and cup each. Our breakfast was porridge, lunch was salami, cheese and crackers and dinner was pasta with packet sauce or ramen noodles. We wanted tortilla wraps for lunch but the supermarket ran out of them so we bought crackers instead.
There were lots of snack choices to choose from but I was a little concerned with the weight of my backpack so I settled for a ziplock bag of nuts and raisins plus 3 dulce de leche chocolate biscuits.
In the end, Will carried the two tents plus some cooking equipment, I carried two sleeping bags, one set of tent poles plus a cooking pot with our porridge in it and the pasta sauces and Shelly carried the rest of the food.
We tried to distribute the weight evenly and with regard to our own body weight and strength. I had packed the lightest in terms of clothes so I could pack quite alot in.
By the time I tried on my packed backpack, I knew I was going to be burning some serious energy over the coming days. My backpack was the heaviest it’s ever been since I bought it. Not too heavy for me but definitely heavier than what I travel with.
With a minimum of 5 hours walking each day, I was relieved that we wouldn’t be walking at high altitude.
We were dropped off by the bus at an area called Administration. From here, we started on the 5 hour walk to Refugio Grey.
All the talk about windswept Patagonia is no exaggeration. The winds were incredibly strong and it took extra effort to walk in it.
As far as I was concerned, the temperature was perfect for hiking.
I couldn’t get over how lucky we were to see the national park during the autumn season.
I couldn’t picture it looking anymore beautiful in summer than it already did.
Even with the heavier pack, Will walked alot faster than we did, so he went ahead of us.
We were given detailed maps but the trail was very easy to follow.
Shelly and I found it very challenging to walk against the wind with our big backpacks and on several occasions, were blown into the side of the hills we were walking on.
Since the weather was so good on that first day, Shelly and I walked at a leisurely pace and took lots of photos.
We were lulled into a false sense of security as the guy who held the information session told us that the first day was 5 hours of flat walking.
Let’s just say that isn’t an entirely accurate statement.
In the last couple of hours, we climbed some steep trails.
In the last hour, we approached Lake Pehoe, which was so spectacular it took my breath away.
We took many photos, from all different angles but none could do it justice.
It felt as though we had discovered paradise on earth.
We lingered there for some time and even tried to collect water from the lake before making our way up a mountain to our first campsite.
Our reluctance to leave the lake meant that Will had waited at the campsite for us for over an hour. He had walked alone so there was no one to take photos of him by the lake and I was carrying both sets of tent poles at that stage so he couldn’t set up the tents. (although I´m not sure it would have crossed his mind to do so)
That evening, we fell asleep to the sound of the howling wind. I managed to sleep through it and was quite warm inside the tent.
The next morning we woke up to a complete change in the weather.
The winds were still very strong but with it came rain and grey skies.
We brought out all our wet weather gear. It was the first time I had ever used my waterproof backpack cover.
Will opted to walk with us that day and had a good laugh at how much Shelly and I struggled with the wind.
Despite the damper, darker weather, we still had fun along the way.
After 3 hours, we reached Camp Italiano where we stopped for lunch. At that point the weather hadn’t improved and to our disappointment, we didn’t go to the Valley de Frances.
It is reputedly the most beautiful part of the park but we were told that there is no point going if you don’t have good weather as you don’t get to see any views.
We had to be content with photos from afar. I have since googled pictures and I think this is what we were supposed to see.
Suffice to say, at this point, Will was not a happy chappy.
It was disappointing for him not to have seen both Glacier Grey and Valley de Frances yet still have to carry our tents around.
We walked for another 2.5 hours from Camp Italiano to Camp Los Cuernos as we were told that Camp Italiano has a massive problem with mice.
By the time we reached Camp Los Cuernos, the temperature had dropped several degrees, the rain had picked up and the winds were even stronger than before. I was freezing!
Will was so cold that he suggested we skip cooking dinner and just eat our snacks for dinner. There was no way I was doing that. Anyone who knows me knows how grumpy I can be when I am hungry. Turns out they were going to find out anyway!
We set up our tents close together underneath a tree which had a dry patch of land. Many of the areas in the campsite were flooded with water.
We hung our backpacks at the refugio on some pegs that were there for that purpose. We wrapped our food up in many plastic bags and packed it in my backpack.
Unfortunately some dodgy idiot stole Shelly’s waterproof backpack cover. That was the first of several annoying incidents.
A couple of French guys that were going along the same trail as us set up camp right next to our tent. We could hear them talking and laughing in their tent and it provided some small measure of comfort.
That evening, I couldn’t sleep. I kept dozing on and off until 2am when I woke up abruptly. I was shivering and the tent floor felt cold and damp. I tried moving closely to Shelly to get some body warmth but she was so cold, she could easily have been a fish.
No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get back to sleep. I could hear the French guys talking at 2 am and then at 4am so I suspected they had trouble sleeping as well. I tried sitting upright in the tent to stay warm but the tent wasn’t actually high enough for me to sit up comfortably.
That’s right! It wasn’t high enough for ME! I´m a short ass!
By the time morning rolled around, I was sleep deprived and hungry, both of which I am unfamiliar with (hehehe). I didn’t want to spend another night and had decided to cut the trek short a day and head to the park entrance.
I’m sure it came as a real surprise to Shelly as up to that point, Will had been the one complaining about the weather, the trek and lamenting the reasons why he came along instead of going to Bariloche.
It turns out mice are persistent little critters. They chewed a couple of holes in the bottom of my backpack and got to our food. Truth be told, I hadn’t noticed until Shelly found a few holes in our bags of porridge and my MANGO TANG sachet!
Let me tell you after that awful night of no sleep, if I had caught those little critters in action, they would have come to a violent end. GRR!
We repacked our backpacks so that I was carrying one tent and my sleeping bag, just in case. My backpack was much heavier with a wet tent but at least it gave Will a little break from carrying two tents.
It quickly became apparent that it was shaping up to be another beautiful day.
Within an hour of walking, the adrenelin had kicked in and last night was a distant memory.
We walked for 3.5 hours before reaching a shortcut to Camp Chileno.
If had chosen not to take the shortcut I could have headed straight to the park entrance, but that didn’t even occur to me till much later as I had forgotten that I even wanted to leave early.
It is amazing how great weather and beautiful surroundings can lift you up to new heights.
Not to mention, Shelly shared her strawberry tang with me which cheered me up immensely.
Not even the friendly neighbourhood cow could scare me away!
Shelly and I had to take off several layers as it got really hot when we were trekking.
Once we past the shortcut, we climbed uphill for 1.5 hours before reaching Camp Chileno.
The uphill ascent was not to be laughed at.
Some parts of it were at 40% to 50% gradient and the extra weight of our backpacks meant the burn in our thighs and hamstrings was even more pronounced.
In spite of this, I found this section very enjoyable.
I know what pace works for me when going uphill and I didn’t push myself so hard that I couldn’t enjoy the wonderful views.
Plus there was some sort of sick pleasure we could derive in feeling like we were toning up our leg muscles and burning calories.
Once we past Camp Chileno, we climbed for another hour to Camp Paine Grande, the nearest camp to Torres del Paine.
At this stage, we noticed it had been snowing.
The snow gave the park a completely different look.
It was so beautiful that I hadn’t really thought about the ramifications of snow on our comfort in the tent that night.
Will obviously had thought about it as he became more quiet, the deeper the snow became.
At least Camp Paine Grande had a shelter for us to cook in.
I felt confident that I wouldn’t be as cold as the previous night as there was no rain and my rain jacket and pants had completely dried so I was going to wear them to sleep for extra warmth.
The numerous trees and the snow at camp made it feel like we were in the scene of Blair Witch project. My overactive imagination made sure I didn’t go anywhere alone.
Since we walked just under 7 hours that day, with plenty of uphill climbs, we spoiled ourselves with porridge for a pre-dinner snack, corn soup for appetizers and pasta with napolitana sauce.
Our newly acquired French friends, who had also stayed at Erratic Rock and who were on the bus to the park with us, stayed at the same camp.
They offered us some absenthe (for warmth) and some of their nut and raisin mix as they had brought an abundance of food. We settled for some of our hot chocolate instead.
There was an abandoned sleeping bag at the campsite so Shelly suggested we line the floor of our tent with it for an extra layer of warmth.
Given my fear of having another freezing cold night, it was clear to me that she was the smartest person in the world right then.
It made a big difference. We laid our misshapen broken rain ponchos on the floor of the tent, our sleeping mats on top of them and then spread out the abandoned sleeping bag.
I wore tights, cargo pants and rain trousers plus 5 layers on my upper body including a thermal vest and my rainjacket. I also wore a snood that covered my ears, head and neck then wore a hat on top of that.
I tucked myself deep in my sleeping bag, leaving only a small opening where my mouth was. I stayed like this from dinner to midnight when I could hear Shelly getting up. Turns out we had some furry visitors outside our tent.
I had NO idea that the footsteps I had been hearing outside were actually mice. They didn’t sound like the ‘little critters’ I expected. Shelly unzipped the tent to check on our backpacks and lo and behold, they had gotten into her backpack and found the empty sachet of strawberry tang.
We fell asleep to the sound of them scurrying around the tent and dragging things across the ground. It was just too cold outside to deal with them.
Sadly, we woke up the next morning to the sound of rain. We were supposed to wake up at 7am and head up to the Torres Del Paine lookout for sunrise.
Unfortunately the sky was obscured with clouds and the rain was persistent and heavy so we all made the call not to go to the lookout and head straight for the park entrance to make the daily pick up.
It was a 4 hour walk back to the entrance and the rain didn’t let up once.
By the time we got to the office where the bus was to pick us up, we were saturated, cold and stiff.
Will was in a foul mood as he was wet, hungry and cold. I had gotten over my temper tantrum from the previous day and could only laugh that we had walked for 4 days and hadn’t seen what we had come out to see.
We got back to Erratic Rock Hostel at 7pm and celebrated with pizza. We put up with rain, sunshine, wind and snow, had our food stolen by mice, froze on most nights, carried bags heavier than we were used to and still came back smiling. If that isn’t something to celebrate then I don’t know what is.