Towers of Pain

OK, it’s not an exact translation, but “Towers of Pain” is perhaps a more fitting moniker than the actual name: Torres del Paine.  Torres del Paine, Chile’s most visited national park, is accessed from the touristy, yet quaint, town of Puerto Natales.  The “pains” can be physical, emotional, and not least, financial. Apparently the tour companies and national park system know that they can charge a lot for this park, and they do.  Back in 2009 my wife and I attempted to conquer the pain, and after stocking up on food, ditching unnecessary weight at the hostel, and taking the 2.5 hour bus ride to the park entrance where we paid the exorbitant entrance fee, we were given 2 injurious options.  Pay more money to take a bus or boat to the start of the trail, or hike all our stuff for 6 hours before getting to the official trailhead.  Not feeling that particular spring in our step, we chose the former option.

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Torres del Paine is a huge park, but most hikers choose to trek the popular ¨W¨route, so named because of the shape of the trail network.  A feigned security is had by the registration process at the entrance, where you must detail your itinerary so that if you wander off the trail and die, some ranger will eventually find you.  In reality, there is no check-out procedure, and everyone who has ever wandered off and died has never been found.  Judging by the number of Andean Condors circling around, this might happen more than admitted……

The park hosts some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world.  Jagged spires of rock (the Torres) juxtapose themselves against a dynamic skyscape of grey, blue and white.  Below the snow and humbled, windswept trees lay peaceful emerald lakes.But there is malevolence in this beauty. It is manifested in the air, whirling about in the very essence of existence. No, this is no ordinary wind. It is a massive, self-perpetuating wall that howls through every crack and crevice of your soul.  There is no humanly way of describing this demonic zephyr. Fueled by cold air slipping off one of the largest chunks of ice this side of Antarctica, this wind pummels everything in its path.  Entire puddles are relocated, and one has to be constantly aware of marble-sized rocks being lifted off the path and hurdled through the air, stopping only when the wind ceases (which it never does), or when they embed themselves in some object (such as your head).  In all seriousness, most of the fatalities in the park occur when some camera-touting tourist stands on a rock to get a shot of the incredible scenery, and is flung off into the wild yonder by an unexpected gust. Despite the seven-plus years since our visit, Torres del Paine remains the only place on Earth I have ever witnessed a waterfall being blown back uphill, like an ancient army in retreat from a losing battle.

Despite the wind, the cold, and the exhaustion, we spent three nights in the park, covering only the western half of the ¨W¨, so I guess we did the ¨V¨.  Animals were few and far between (probably only the most bottom-heavy were saved from being blown to Antarctica), but we saw hundreds of Guanacos (camel-like mammals that are the ancestors of the domesticated llamas and alpacas) on the way into the park, a few Lesser Rheas (a large, flightless, Ostrich-like bird), and an occasional passerine. Full bird species lists for the days we spent in the park can be found at eBird links here, here, here, and here (this was my pre-eBird days so some lists include species seen outside the park). However, in this frigid landscape wildlife seems almost an afterthought. A mere  reminder that life can cling on in adverse conditions, however precarious the toehold.

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It is precisely when the elements are stacked so strongly against human occupation that humanity shines so brilliantly through, like rays of light dancing between wisps of clouds and across the stratified torres themselves. Signs of humanity can be grandiose, or they can be subtle. Sometimes as subtle as a new friend, made only days prior, popping out of nowhere with a quizzical “Hey guys, want a cracker?” And not just a plain cracker either, but one laced with a touch of home itself in the form of regionally rare peanut butter. It is perhaps only in this mosaic of inhospitable starkness and stunning beauty,  granitic hostility and welcoming embrace that one can truly transcend the towers of pain to realize the grand tranquility within.

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