The icy wind whipped and swirled, nearly knocking me off my feet. Snow lashed my face. My husband and I struggled to see the Torres del Paine summits through the fog. After a wet, cold, three-hour uphill hike, I hoped the slushy precipitation might clear, even for a moment, so I could glimpse the Torres — the trio of granite mountain peaks that are arguably Patagonia’s most iconic sight. On a clear day, their jagged gray edges scrape the sky hundreds of feet above a snowfield and a meltwater lake, but at this particular moment they were hiding.
The Torres are often the highlight of the approximately 45-mile W Circuit trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. On this day at the end of 2013, Andrew and I were alone at the lookout, the fierce weather probably deterring other hopeful souls. We huddled on a boulder to wait for the gray curtain to lift from the spires.
We had planned the five-day hike as part of a 20-day trekking excursion in Patagonia, the approximately 300,000-square-mile expanse of wilderness stretching across the bottom of Chile and Argentina. For months, we had looked forward to restoring our worn-out selves by backpacking and camping.
Wild areas are our escape from urban trappings: jobs, cellphones, gridlock, e-mails, deadlines, concrete. More important, they are a place of calm and provide solace as we endure life’s biggest blows. They are where we find peace.
Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the best-selling memoir Wild, is helping to popularize nature’s healing abilities. The outdoors played a tough-love role in her story, which opened on movie screens Dec. 5. Her solo misadventures on the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail through California, Oregon and Washington helped her come to terms with her mother’s death.
Although my situation is different — I have an outdoorsy husband, and we were much more prepared than Strayed was — I felt a kinship with Strayed when I read Wild. After my 62-year-old mother died unexpectedly in 2009, I began planning to hike the entire trail. Long drawn to the mountains and lakes of the Sierras, I had day-hiked sections of the Pacific Crest Trail near Lake Tahoe. I dreamed of a five-month trek spent in a daily rhythm of hiking, eating and sleeping. Frightened by what my mother’s early death might portend for my own mortality, I didn’t want to wait any longer.
The plan was delayed in 2010 when my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and died a year later.
Prior to these deaths, I had headed into the wild whenever everyday stresses became overwhelming. When Andrew and I lived in Arizona, we camped among Sedona’s red rocks and watched storms roll over the desert. When California was our home, we explored the craggy Northern California coastline, redwoods and Sierras. In Washington, we find sanctuary in the sylvan landscapes of Rock Creel Park, as well as Shenandoah National Park and West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness.
After the deaths of our two parents, we began seeking out farther-flung, wilder places. We handled our grief by returning to the Sierras and hiking near Lake Tahoe, climbing across granite ridges overlooking alpine lakes and scrambling over glacial moraines in the Desolation Wilderness. We puttered around on a ramshackle boat in the Galapagos and mountain biked in the Andes. We hiked Kauai’s infamously challenging Kalalau Trail, teetering along the plunging cliffs of the Na Pali Coast.
Nature gave me few answers, but it reminded me that there is more to life than daily existence. It made me grateful to be alive and appreciative of the roots and rocks that kept me grounded.
Even when things didn’t go our way, I was still happier inside a tent or on a trail. On an off-season camping trip in Iceland after Andrew’s father died, gale-force winds and rain hammered our tent. We had made camp alongside Iceland’s largest natural lake, Thingvallavatn, during a blustery storm that had kept us awake nearly all night. It had been raining for five days.
We hunkered deep inside our sleeping bags as the tent’s walls pressed on us and rain misted in under the fly. Our shelter was nearing collapse.
I looked over at Andrew. His brown eyes regarded me through a hole he had created by pulling his mummy bag’s drawstring so tightly around his face, only his eyes and nose were exposed.
“Are you cold?” I asked. It was barely above freezing.
“No, I’m actually fine,” he answered, his voice muffled. “Are you?”
I was fine as well — in fact, I was utterly content, although I imagined that the winds might blow our little tent into the sky like a kite and drop us into the lake.
I wormed my way closer to him, and eventually we dozed off to the sound of tent fabric snapping in the wind. In the morning, puddles pooled under our sleeping pads and rain beaded on our sleeping bags, but we were still snug and warm, and grateful to have experienced the storm.
By the time we left for Patagonia, grief was no longer a crushing presence, but contemporary D.C. life had left me feeling bedraggled. I ached to lace up my boots. Even when there wasn’t a crisis, I had a growing need to get outside, and for longer periods of time.
We had planned the trip for six months before boarding our flight to Chile, poring over gear lists and replacing some of our threadbare 18-year-old backpacking equipment — “prepare to experience every season in one day!” warned the guidebooks. As training, we lugged our loaded packs along Rock Creek Park’s Western Ridge Trail and during weekend trips in Shenandoah.
Andrew and I arrived in Torres del Paine National Park, the first leg of our trip, four days before our climb to Base de las Torres. I pressed my face against the bus window during the two-hour ride from the park’s gateway town of Puerto Natales, mesmerized by the sprawling landscape and the surprising abundance of wildlife: guanacos that resembled petite llamas, massive Andean condors, incongruous flamingos and ostrichlike rheas with little chicks that ran frantically after their fathers. Once in the park, we took a choppy catamaran ride across Lake Pehoé to begin the W Circuit trek.
Our starting point was Paine Grande, one of the park refuges that lie alongside the trail. Some hikers stay inside the lodge’s comfortable rooms and others camp. However, nearly everyone warms up inside with showers and a limited menu. We cooked pasta over our tiny camp stove inside a backpacker hut, but we sipped hot tea inside the lodge before setting up our tent in the twilight.
Of the more than 100,000 people who visit the park each year, most are from outside Chile. The breeze carried fragments of laughter and different languages through our tent walls. This was nowhere near a solitary wilderness experience, and we were surrounded by dozens of other people. Yet I still felt at peace as we drifted to sleep.
From Paine Grande, we hiked about 40 miles over five days to reach the Torres. The beginning of the trail wandered alongside Grey Lake, bedazzled with blue icebergs broken off a glacier that is part of the 220-mile-long Southern Patagonia Ice Field. Winds ripped across the water, nearly blowing us off the path.
Each morning, we packed up our camp and cooked oatmeal with dried fruit with other trekkers. Each night, we snuggled deep into our sleeping bags, insulated from the biting Patagonian chill.
In between, we dawdled along the trail, admiring aquamarine lakes, forests, wildflowers and the black-capped, hornlike Cuernos del Paine mountains that stand sentry over the path. We hiked the French Valley, flanked by glaciers hanging off mountain slopes and granite walls, and ate lunch under Cerro Paine Grande, the highest summit of the park’s mountain range. We drank unfiltered water from glacial meltwater streams.
Rudimentary bridges often cross these streams, requiring hikers to cross single-file. Yet many streams have no bridges, and hikers must cross by hopping gracefully across rocks. I was not graceful and fell into a stream. The water was frigid enough to take my breath away.
I couldn’t get any wetter, so I slogged through the water and plopped down on the stream bank. I bailed water out of my boots, then spent a blissful hour catnapping as my clothes dried in the sun.
For the last day’s hike to the Torres, sheeting precipitation and relentless wind slowed our pace, the weather changing from sunshine to drizzle to rain to sleet to snow — not uncommon weather for Patagonia’s fickle summertime.
Starting in a river valley, we crossed stream after stream, climbing through a beech forest that thinned into shrubs before hitting a boulder-strewn glacial moraine field. Andrew led as we picked our way along the slippery rocks, and I clung to his solid 6-foot-4 frame for support against the gusts.
We were exhausted by the time we arrived at the Torres. I wrung water out of my gloves, shaking my hands to warm them. No other hikers had been either intrepid or foolishly optimistic enough to attempt the hike, let alone sit down and wait for the storm to pass and reveal the soaring peaks.
“Is this where they’re supposed to be?” I asked, squinting through the fog and snow. We were on the shore of the chalky gray lake directly under the Torres. The towers’ snowfield was barely visible, and we could not see the Torres looming above.
“I think so,” he said. He took my soggy hand in his. The storm showed no sign of clearing. “Are you disappointed?”
We sat there together, shivering and holding hands, and I thought about the infinity of the landscape and the intimacy of our tent. The two of us were alive together in this vast and beautiful wilderness, whether or not the weather cooperated. A view would have been nice, but it was not why I had come here.
“No,” I said. “Let’s stay for a while.”
Going to Chile
Torres del Paine National Park, Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena region; www.parquetorresdelpaine.cl/en/; 011-566-1-269-1931. Entrance fee is about $30. The park is about two hours by bus from Puerto Natales. Companies such as Buses Fernández (www.busesfernandez.com), Buses Pacheco (www.busespacheco.com) and Bus-Sur (www.bussur.com/opensite) offer daily service. Rides are approximately $25 round trip and depart from the bus terminal near downtown Puerto Natales.
Hiking: Erratic Rock Hostel, Baquedano 719, Puerto Natales; www.erraticrock.com; 011-566-1-414-317. It’s not necessary to hire a guide for the hike, but this Puerto Natales hostel offers a popular free information session on how do it safely at 3 p.m. daily.
Where to stay: Fantastico Sur (www.fantasticosur.com) and Vértice Patagonia (www.verticepatagonia.com) operate the park’s network of lodges, campsites and cabins. Tents, sleeping bags and mats are available to rent for $3.50-$16 per night. Online reservations are recommended during the high season of January-February, even for campsites and equipment.
Where to eat: Basic, American-style meals are available at the refugios and cost about $12 for breakfast, $16-18 for lunch and $20-25 for dinner. Those wishing to cook their own food in separate camper accommodations can stock up at one of Puerto Natales’s groceries such as Unimarc (www.unimarc.cl).