Torres del Paine
The 'Torres del Paine' in English means the ‘Towers of Pain’. This mountain range consists of three major granite peaks that are rugged, remote and fierce. In 1978 it was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. It is the 8th Natural Wonder of the world and home to over 400 species of animals. Abbie Stirling takes the reader on a memorable adventure to one of the most pristine places on Earth.
I grew up in South Dakota, a flat, expansive, unpopulated place in the United States. During most of the summers my parents, two sisters and I would pack ourselves into the car and drive to the Rock Mountains. One of our trips was to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. My obsession with big mountains was born there. Then, at 13 years old, I saw my first photo of the Torres Del Paine mountains on the Patagonia side of Chile. I've never forgotten those mountains and still have that exact picture. My entire trip to Patagonia was inspired by the Torres del Paine and 22 years after seeing that photo I finally made it.
If you do not speak or read Spanish, you may have glazed over the national park’s name, but it is important to translate in order to understand this story. The Torres del Paine in English means the ‘Towers of Pain’. This mountain range consists of three major granite peaks that are rugged, remote, fierce and produce their own weather patterns. In 1978 it was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO and is still considered one of the most pristine places on Earth. It is the 8th Natural Wonder of the world and home to over 400 species of animals.
So, were the Towers of Pain indeed painful? It was mentally and physically the most challenging, painful thing I have ever done. Last January I didn’t think I could do this hike alone because of the terrain, distance and climate. One year later here I am, having completed the 100-mile O Hike. I stepped into a deeper relationship with myself in the Torres del Paine. There were rainbows every day, a colossal snowstorm, wild horses, waterfalls, glaciers, flamencos, endless fields of wildflowers, condors, pumas, dangling bridges, pouring rain, wind, granite towering peaks into the clouds, no Wi-Fi, and kindred spirits. I spent most of my days hiking alone by choice and because the park is functioning at half capacity right now due to the pandemic. Out of the 50% of people that are allowed into the park only 30% of the people are able to keep their reservations due to the strict restrictions to enter. It is NOT an easy time to be traveling but it has always been worth it. On my first day in the park, I met Camila and Guy who rode their bicycles around the world for 4 years. Andrew, who at 62 years old decided life in Durango, Colorado was too predictable and ended up doing the Peace Corps in Algeria for 2 years. Angelina and Santiago, 22 years old and just out of college, traveling around their own country for a year. Two families with high school aged children, a guide named Pablo who you already know I loved, a brother and sister duo from Palo Alto, along with a clan of Israelis. There were days where it rained so hard everything I had was soaking wet. A day where the Torres let me know that rain isn’t that bad because it can snow and snow it did. I woke up on the 4th day to about 3 inches of snow caking the tent. This happened to be the day I also had to cross the biggest pass in the park. Needless to say, everyone on the trip thought I was a slow roller because of how long I was taking to get from campsite to campsite. Yet, on this day the lion in me came out and I powered by everyone on the trail to the top out of sheer panic as the snow kept dumping. The second largest ice cap in the world spans between the border of Argentina and Chile. At the top of this pass, after the dumping snow the sky cleared and an expansive ice field, as far as my eyes could see, revealed itself. The swinging wooden bridges were so petrifying I couldn’t look down the 1,000 feet and had to count each step as I crossed. Seeing a puma in the wild was both distressing and electric. You know the saying, do one thing a day that scares you? This was more like ‘do 5 things a day that scare you.’
On my final day of the hike, I was exhausted, counting each step, trying to reckon with the fact that it was about to be over. Yet, tired as I was, the park wanted me to have one final extravaganza. I made my way to the park ranger station and asked if the bus to town stopped there, they said it did. Then one hour later the bus blasted past the station without stopping. The rangers apparently forgot the bus doesn’t stop there on Sundays, so they felt obligated to flag down a vehicle to get me back to town. Twenty minutes later a little white sprinter van with two men named Angelo and Peto agreed to pick me up. They are both rafting guides in the park and were heading back to Puerto Natales after a day of work. As we talked, I learned that they are ‘Mapuche’ which is the indigenous tribe from the Patagonia region. ‘Mapu’ means people and ‘che’ means land which makes them the people of the land. Their family owns an estancia, or ranch, inside the park that was indoctrinated to their family. There was a party happening on the estancia that night and you know I can’t miss a good party! So, I ended my time at the Torres del Paine among the wild horses, dancing the night away, drinking incredible wine, eating homemade vegan food with the locals. It was as close to perfect as it could be.