Chapter 51: Torres del Paine Prevails

 

The following post details the Nowhere Men’s journey from April 6 – April 12:

Story Highlights:

 

Leaving Calafate

The drive from Calafate to Puerto Natales, the home base of prospective Tour del Paine trekkers, was not without drama. We slept in the car, on the side of the road, without much ado and then in the morning we drove three hours in the wrong direction. That is, we somehow managed to drive completely east, to the Atlantic coast, instead of west, towards the border with Chile.

None of the signs one might imagine seemed to deter us: that the sun was rising on the wrong side of the car, that it was taking much longer than we’d expected, that none of the signs mentioned the border with Chile. By the time we did arrive in Puerto Natales, in the late afternoon, we had a busy evening preparing for our hike the next day. Then again, last minute cramming is our specialty. We made it work.

goodnight moon
goodnight moon
documenting the wrong turn
documenting the wrong turn

 

Torres del Paine Day 1

The bus from Puerto Natales was crowded with gringos and pin-drop quiet. The inside windows fogged up with condensation, indicating the polar opposite temperature on the other side. Brightness slowly crept through the moist glass walls of the bus. 2 hours passed without movement, we sitting awake with our eyes closed having already downed our morning coffees. Thoughts and loose plans for our return home spun in our solitary minds. The wheels below our feet shook us towards the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park.

Driving alongside the glorious blackened shards of monstrous rock, one wonders about its incredible formation millions of years back, huge mountains colliding into each other like battering rams warring for supremacy. The knife-like tipped peaks had raced one another into the sky, akin to school children shooting their arms up to answer a question, each more eager than their friends next to them.

Now these menacing crusts of earth stood motionless, petrified in place. Understated vegetation grew near the mountains’ feet, while the winds above swirled smooth coats of snow around the narrowing top halves, like confectioner’s sugar on a glamorous wedding cake.

the calm before the storm
the calm before the storm

 

The harsh winds punched the metallic pools of water, thrashing waves through the thorny hardened weeds.

The bus carefully carried us through the clattering pebbly road, giving us a chance to take in our surroundings. We were deposited at the loading dock of a boat on a crispy chilled lake.

During the ride, we were sure it was down-pouring, for splashes of water were pummeling the boat’s windows – after all, weather infamously shifts rapidly in the park. But no, the fury of the wind was simply levitating buckets at a time from the lake and hurling it at the boat as we cruised over choppy waters.

you'll never meet a boat that works harder than this boat
you’ll never meet a boat that works harder than this boat

 

They dropped us on the docks on the other side, which was to be our starting point for the day. We drew out the legs of our rented walking sticks, nuzzled our buffs around our necks and faces, and lowered our heads right into the furious gusts.

We braved the air’s biting chill, our body temperature constantly see-sawing between cold from the elements and warm from the sweat we’d been working up.

Grey clouds perpetually loomed overhead, threatening but never following through with a rain shower. The wind, however, did not cease to crest. Trees and small shrubbery leaned in the direction the changing winds whistled, as if highly educated to the lessons of these unpredictable conditions.

smiling through the wind
smiling through the wind

 

Way off in the distance a glacier field emerged, blocking in the cove of Lago Grey with an impenetrable force. The peppering of snow about the neighboring chunks of rock, along with a kind of hypnotic fog diluting the sun’s shine gave off a foreign, nearly otherworldly impression.

How could this landscape share a continent with the crowded streets of Lima or the beachy vibes of Cartagena? If New York is our home planet, then the world before us was the surface of Saturn.

end of the line
end of the line
girl: "do you want me to take a photo of you guys?" us: "no, we're good"
girl: “do you want me to take a photo of you guys?” us: “no, we’re good”

 

This inaugural day of hiking was not diminishing in its demands of our bodies, but our shoulders and backs felt the ache of the weight of our bags. We remained in good spirits, even after cooking up some pasta that begged for extra flavor. It was enough to lead us to our podlike rent-a-tents for the night.

giraffe shaped space pod
giraffe shaped space pod

 

Torres del Paine Day 2

The late sunrise made morning movement just a beat later than it’d otherwise have been. In what had become a daily ritual for us, as rhythmic and predictable as it is to track the sun’s course across the sky, we boiled water for coffee before attempting a coherent thought.

Soon after, we loaded up on carbs and sugar via oatmeal and jelly, packed up our tents and backpacks, and set out on the trail.

this is how you drink water in Torres del Paine National Park
this is how you drink water in Torres del Paine National Park

 

It was a flawless day. The sky was a pale blue, minimal clouds floating friendly without risk of rain. The wind was close to zero, a stark departure from our preliminary day in the park. The itinerary called for a return to where we started at the docks, followed by a left turn several kilometers to our night-two camp site.

Our surroundings, in this climate so disparate from the day prior, seemed to be a wholly new place. Mighty mountains that had been helplessly obscured by the thickets of overcast skies on day one now popped proudly on the other side of the lake. We walked quite peacefully as we retraced our steps, even with weighty packs on our backs, rarely facing any steep slopes, down or up.

lookin good, young buck
lookin good, young buck

 

By the time we reached the lake where our trek began 24 hours before, we had to double check to make sure it was one in the same. The day before, the color of the water was a vastly different shade, matching the sky’s grey gloom with a dark and dreary aspect. Here was something altogether different.

We stared out at a lake glowing a bright royal blue, reflecting the charm of the sky above. We too bubbled in good moods; Brian even tried on his baseball cap, the first time he’d warn one since he was eight years old. Nothing could go wrong today!

Brian lookin' fresh with his new cap
Brian lookin’ fresh with his new cap

 

In the afternoon we performed at a more motivated pace. Through a forest crippled by a tragic wildlife but 5 years earlier, the white charred trees could have easily been confused as totally beautiful. The sun slipped past a white speckled mountain on our left hand side, relegating us to shadow, but keeping lit the entrancing multi-layered granite peak in front of us.

over the river and through the woods
over the river and through the woods

 

As we walked we talked politics, hypotheticals ranging from plausible future personal scenarios for our lives to absurdly ludicrous what-ifs, and funny interactions with some of the friends we’d made since we left NYC. Alex made the frightening observation that we’ve probably spent nearly 90% of our talk time on this trip with just each other.

Our campsite was ideally located right next to a thirst-quenching glacial river at the wooded foothill of the aforementioned mountain. We freely pitched our two tents amidst a modest scatter of neighbors, made some pasta as well as small talk with other trekkers, and hit the hay before the day itself really had a chance to fully doze off into darkness.

the opposite of "black muddy river" right here
the opposite of “black muddy river” right here

 

Torres del Paine Day 3

We began the day without our heavy packs, leaving them at the campsite and setting off uphill to a backdoor view of the famous torres (towers) of the park.

At the lookout point, each blink of the eye was a stare at perhaps the most beautiful images we’d seen in our whole year on the road. A stadium of stone pillars surrounded us, we perched on a pedestal on the side of the slope. This was no ordinary arena, though.

The mountains worked as the spires lining the stadium’s outer rim, while a tie-day display of fall foliage burst in the valley below. Above the arena streaks of white clouds powdered the earth’s ceiling. A majestic orchestra of natural beauty played a tune displayed not through sound but into a visual representation of a euphoric Beethoven symphony.

i just can't get enough, i just can't get enough
i just can’t get enough, i just can’t get enough
smile! you're on selfie camera
smile! you’re on selfie camera

 

We took it all in, completely entranced by where we were, what it meant, and how long it took to get there. We stared at the city skyline of mountains before us as long as we could and well past the amount of time that any other trekkers remained, knowing full well that soon enough we’d be back under the manmade cityscape of New York. We smiled and descended.

On our weight free walk down, a lion’s roar echoed from our right hand side, over the fresh water river and within the crevices of the natural towers. It was then that we caught sight of an enormous avalanche steamrolling down the cliffside. The snow shot down from near the top, picking up momentum and billowing straight down to the base.

The thunderous shake shuddered an otherwise perfectly still balance of nature. We hurried for our cameras, jittery with enthusiasm, Eric quick to the draw to record on his iPhone, Brian following a few seconds later with the main camera to catch the tail end and our reactions. Those spontaneously documented moments are always the richest, we knew.

check yourself BEFORE you wreck yourself
check yourself BEFORE you wreck yourself

 

During our afternoon walk from one campsite to the next, the sudden fantasy of chicken parm popped into Eric’s drifting thoughts. He blurted aloud, “what would you do for a nice chicken parm sandwich right now?” This began an ongoing conversation about food that would only build over the course of the next couple of weeks before going home. Furthermore, it finally settled the answer to the question we were so often asked, “What food do you miss the most while you’re on the road?”

Alex tries to distract himself from the thought of chicken parm
Alex tries to distract himself from the thought of chicken parm

 

Cinnamon bun swirled poofs floated in the sky and above the pristine turquoise lake along which we marched. We took a break just before reaching camp to skip some rocks and to take in a moment frozen in time. We had grown so deeply in touch with nature, with where we were on the map, and with ourselves that each breath we took made us stronger, freer, calmer, and happier.

delicious looking clouds. is that frosting?
delicious looking clouds. is that frosting?
in the zone
in the zone

 

Torres del Paine Day 4

On the fourth and longest day of our hike, we found our groove. Kicking up our pace an extra gear, our juices flowed with future book ideas, observations of all kinds, and more conversation about chicken parm sandwiches.

We galloped through rolling pastures and curved mountain ledges, allowing ourselves only modest breaks and quick bites. Any prolonged rest would give our rising sweat buildup a chance to cool in the punchy Patagonia chill. We crafted just enough walking sequences and on-camera narrations to lay a solid base for the day’s work.

a quick breather
a quick breather
Brian's camera game on point
Brian’s camera game on point

 

At our base camp, at the foothill of the major lookout point for the park’s main attraction, the spired Torres del Paine, we messed around with a friendly Midwest sibling pair from South Dakota. Sam and Molly were the first people we’d ever met from that state, and maybe even the first South Dakotans we’d met in our entire lives. They had agreeable smiles and captivating matching green ocean eyes that made chit chat with them a breeze.

We found it so fascinating to get to know a solid set of Americans this far away from home who we certainly never otherwise get a chance to know, but it reminded us how familiar and likable our compatriots are. We tend to focus so deeply on learning about locals as we travel, while we occasionally meet a European or Australian here or there in hostels.

With Sam and Molly, we stoked a new realization: It’s not all just about comparing Latinos with those who we already know back at home. There is a sea of Americans out there with backgrounds as foreign to us as we could find all the way down here. Nonetheless, we shared a commonality in worldview; that America is a place we both proudly call home. It was a pleasant lesson to learn to help guide us back into life under the stars and stripes.

Sam and Molly chat it up with Alex
Sam and Molly chat it up with Alex
ok, so that way
ok, so that way
like we said, the foothills
like we said, the foothills
very nice.
very nice.

 

We fed ourselves a third night in a row of pasta based in a thickened mushroom and spinach soup. It did the trick to knock us out so we’d be right in shape to pop awake in the early morning.

sometimes pasta tastes best when you make it with packaged soup
sometimes pasta tastes best when you make it with packaged soup

 

Torres del Paine Day 5

Dreams were still in their second act when our alarm jarred us awake before 6am. Today demanded an early rise, one final hurdle before the finish line. We boiled some hot water, stirred in coffee, and let the energy flow into our bellies and punctuate our extremities with purpose. It would take 45 vertical minutes of everything we had left in the tank to rise up to the laguna that sat at the foot of the towers, the Torres del Paine that had been the culmination of this monumental five-day hike.

Our illuminated headlamps represented the singular rays of light in an otherwise pitch-black abyss. Our 98-degree breath blew into the frigid air with a smack of smoke, firing out of us as we breathed heavily into the cold, still pre-dawn day. We ignored whatever lingering pains we’d developed en route to our destination, minds focused on making it in time for sunrise. One foot in front of the other, stairways of rock followed by soft-pebbled paths perched ever upwards.

Behind our heads a burst of day scorched a small shoot of the sky. We had to rush by the end, each second’s delay signaling another missed moment of the towers’ unpredictable bloom.

And then, we were there. Rushing to settle the cameras at optimal angles, the show began, at first slowly and then in full force. The towers, made from the same elements of Earth as everything else on our planet, somehow stood out with a degree of exceptionalism beyond the rest. The sun rose from across the sky, projecting a spotlight on the towers that perceived more like a lamp than an external force. They brightened with an increasing incredibility, overflowing with hews and colors like a kaleidoscope, like a peacock spreading its wings. We juiced with amazement. The display before our eyes somehow surpassed our wildest expectations that we’d worked up on what itself was an outstanding hike in the five preceding days.

the first signs of light
the first signs of light
the peak of the spectacle
the peak of the spectacle
full blown light
full blown light

 

It dawned on us on our descent down and out of the park that the Torres del Paine hike was a microcosm for the beauty and splendor of our entire one-year journey. Each step of the way from New York to Patagonia awoke a dormant appreciation for the world around us that typically teems in childhood and not again after. With this experience now in our back pocket, we embarked on the final chapter of our journey to the end of the world.

just finishing up a 5-day hike. nothin' to see here
just finishing up a 5-day hike. nothin’ to see here
a finale "suited" for ninjas ;)
a finale “suited” for ninjas 😉

 

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