It has always been difficult to write about our time in Patagonia, where a mix of bravado and stupidity almost got my wife, my brother, and I killed.
A few days before Chelsea and I set off on our around-the-world trip, we were watching a late night Survivorman episode with my younger brother, Matt, aka “Wildcod” aka “The Little Prince”. In the episode, Les Stroud was attempting to recreate the events that led up to a young hiker’s death on John Gardner Pass, part of the famous Torres Del Paine “O” Circuit in Patagonia, Chile. As the episode ended, all three of us were left with a palpable unease and a greater appreciation for what happened to us in that very same spot only two years earlier.
To kick-off the 2014 New Year, the three of us found ourselves aboard a plane bound for Chile in hopes to hike the Torres del Paine Circuit, see some penguins and drink some famous Chilean wine. As would be expected, the latter two items on our list would be much easier to accomplish.
The trip started off great, with us flying into Santiago, catching another flight to Punta Arenas situated on the Straight of Magellan, and then busing up to Puerto Natales – the “gateway” to Torres del Paine National Park. After spending the afternoon loading up empanadas and cheese (our favorites), we used the evening to organize our supplies and prepare for the days to come.
When we arrived at the park the next morning, we were greeted with a long line of hikers and typical rainy Patagonian weather. As the other hikers hit the trail, we stayed back and chatted about our plans to write about our adventures and share the useful information we have learned along the way. Unlike many others, my brother and I started hiking 8 years ago with no mentors, no hiking friends, no real idea on what we were doing, and living in Kansas. During our first trips we learned by trial and fire (literally). Matt got burned, our gear got soaked, we ran out of water, we got lost, we were chased by dogs, I got sick, and on and on – until we learned.
So, as the universe would have it, we were talking about all the knowledge we had to “share” when whaam baam! My boots became inexplicably stuck
together and I fell face forward like a tree falling to the ground. Great! We hadn’t walked more than 50 steps and I am now on the side of the trail with a bruised ego, bleeding knee and hurt hand. I realized that no matter how much “experience” you have, or “knowledge” you think you have gained, something unexpected or seemingly stupid (like your boots becoming stuck together) can happen, and those instances can have dire consequences in the backcountry. I probably should have sat a little longer on the side of the trail to ponder that thought.
The rest of that day and the following two went by as expected, with rain, wind and beautiful scenery. On the third night, we camped at Los Perros (“the dogs”) Campground, the last camp before John Gardner Pass. As its name indicated, it was a muddy mess, full of standing water and a rubbish heap of a cooking hut. On this particular hike, you must camp in designated campgrounds and have your choice of either carrying your own tent and gear, staying in a pre-pitched campground tent or staying in a “refugio” hut. We opted to carry our own tent and gear, which allowed us to pick our own campsites – a decision which would soon pay off. That night a large rain storm moved in and the campground was flooded. As my brother and I toured the area the next morning, we found dozens of pre-pitched tents in low-lying areas that had at least an inch of water inside! The hikers and their gear were completely soaked and many decided to pack up their stuff and head home.
Sorry for the lack of photos in this section. For obvious reasons, none were taken.
As we made our way back to our tents, feeling somewhat sorry for those poor souls who had paid money for those sites, we began to hear a rumor that the park rangers where about to close John Gardner Pass due to a large storm moving in. While the snow had already begun fall, we decided to cast off the rumors and attempt to start-up the pass before the rangers could act (In our defense, we have learned on other hikes that hikers LOVE to spread rumors about impassable rivers, miles of treacherous snow, or other deadly and worrisome conditions – but they are almost always over-blown and typically wildly inaccurate).
Making quick work of our campsite, we ate a light breakfast and headed up to tackle the pass. The first mile or so was tough work as the trail was thick with mud and water. As we slowly made our way through the trees, the snow began to fall harder and harder, making the way forward increasingly difficult. Finally, as we entered the last stand of trees before the long haul across the barren mountainside and that led to the pass, we stopped to reconsidered what we were doing…
Outside our nest of trees, the storm was clearly about to bear down on us. The wind was blowing steadily and visibility was becoming limited. Looking back at this moment, not prepared for a winter style storm, not familiar enough with Patagonia’s fierce wind, and not wanting to admit our folly, we should have turned around. Instead, we decided to hold a vote, where my brother and I voted to push on and Chelsea voted to turn around. After some discussion, Chelsea reluctantly decided to continue – a decision I am sure she regrets.
The hours that followed have always been a blur…As we left the shelter of the trees, the wind and snow followed our every step. I remember telling myself that this was just like the times snowboarding in Colorado, where the temps were even lower and the snow just as deep. But this wasn’t really like that. My hiking pants were thin and already frozen stiff, my beard was dripping with icicles and I was wearing my extra pair of hiking socks as mittens. But this is the fun part of adventure, right!? Even with the situation becoming more precarious with every step, we couldn’t fathom turning around and figured the pass must be just ahead.
In this section of the trail, there is a smattering of orange tipped posts that help guide the way in situations like these. Moving slowly, we would make our way to one post, wait for the wind to stop for a moment, then try to spot the next and move ahead. As we pressed forward, we noticed three strong Spanish hikers we had met previously coming up the mountainside and decided to wait for them so we could attempt the pass together. Emboldened by our new companions, we walked on, heads down, until we reached a bus-sized outcropping that we figured was blocking our view of the pass. As went moved out from the protection of the rock and turned up towards the inevitable pass, Boom! Both Matt and I were knocked to our knees by the wind. Gasping for air and shielding our eyes, we were both struggling to regain our composure from what was happening. It was a grotesque and brutal wind that was unrelenting and filled with ice and snow. The “white wind”, as Les Stroud so eloquently called it, was so penetrating that you could barely see your hand in front of your face and had to yell to speak to the person right next to you.
The Patagonian wind is notoriously strong, but being from Kansas (super windy), we thought the wind situation was overblown. In the first couple days of hiking, we had experienced periods of sustained wind that would knock you off-balance and force you to turn your face to the side in order to breathe (stick your face out the car window going 60 mph and you will get the feeling), but this wind on the John Gardner Pass was so much more, so much stronger than anything we had encountered. It’s not that we lost the drive to go forward, it’s that we literally hit a wall of wind and ice. We could not walk forward.
Unable to regain my footing, I was forced to crawl back behind the rock outcropping, where Matt, Chelsea and the three Spaniards were coming to terms with the situation. After an unknown amount of time waiting for the storm to die down, one of the Spaniards came up to us and yelled “WE MUST GO DOWN THE MOUNTAIN!” in his broken English. He was right. We had been sitting there getting colder and colder, with no reprieve in sight, and no way to advance. With visibility limited to a couple of feet, the orange posts that once guided us up were now completely obscured. We didn’t know the direction, we didn’t have a trail, but we knew we had to go down, so down we went. Well, we didn’t so much go down, as got blown down. Time and time again the wind would literally knock us down and into the increasingly deeper snow. It was during this time that I think all of us had a moment of thinking this could be how it ends – as in the big END. We all could see the newspaper headlines declaring that three stupid, unprepared, American hikers, ignored the warnings, got themselves stuck in a storm, got lost and died. Thankfully, by the grace of God, that did not happen and it was not our time. After stumbling blindly downhill, finally, finally, a glimpse of orange caught our eye. A post! Our way back!
On the way down we found groups of hikers that had been waiting out the storm lower on the mountain and were now debating what they should do. Some were crying, some were shivering, and some clearly just wanted to go home. Over the next couple hours we moved, without emotion back towards camp. We became separated from the three Spaniards that were with us and didn’t see them again for three days. Broken and weary, we arrived back in the campsite and pitched our tents in the same muddy, wet spots that we had left that morning. We had been in the wind and snow for over 8 hours and now it was time to eat and sleep in the same place as the night before. Of course, neither would come easily as our bodies shivered and repulsed at the thought of food.
The next morning we woke up exhausted and defeated. The pass had been officially closed and would remain that way for 4 days. As we pondered our options, we soon realized that if we wanted to see everything we came to see, we would have to spend the next couple of days backtracking to where we started and then start-up the other side of the circuit. As most hikers began abandoning their trips, we concluded that that would not be our fate. And so, we decided to cover on that day what had previously taken us two, and increase our mileage and speed for the remaining days – all that we would miss is the half-day’s walk down from John Gardner’s Pass to Glacier Grey. We could live with that, so we set off. The next few days rolled by, as we saw the Torres, Valle del Frances, and Los Cuernos. Eventually we warmed up. Other than a few black spots on Chelsea’s toes and a little frost nip on her face, we escaped the episode relatively unharmed. And hopefully, just hopefully, we learned something.
Fortunately for us, we did not succumb to the fate of the poor young man in that late night episode of Survivorman. But we easily could have. One wrong foot placement, one bad stumble could have seen us injured high on the mountain, in a massive storm, and with no one to help.
The rest of our trip went better than expected. We jet-boated across the Strait of Magellan, played with the penguins (please don’t actually touch the penguins), sipped fine wine on an amazing wine tour, and hung out in the hip seaside towns of Vina del Mar and Renaca.
We plan to return to Chile in February 2017…
You can find more pictures from our 2014 Patagonian adventure here.