How To Pack A Wet Tent: A Trek Through Torres Del Paine, Chile
The mountain itself seemed to be hurling millions of tiny frozen pellets from every direction, some even rising up from the ground, all apparently aimed directly at our eyeballs. It was impossible to tell the depth of the snow, as it blasted across some rocks leaving them bare, and piled improbably high where larger rocks prevented its determined chase of the wind.
“You are lucky, this is the first snow of this year!” A park ranger gleefully shouted to us, bouncing by on legs that were much surer of the terrain than mine.
“Lucky?!” was all I managed to respond.
“Yes! We haven’t had snow since December, you’re the first to see it!”
At this point my boyfriend and I were halfway up Paso John Gardner, the highest point on the famous Paine Circuit, a backpacking route around Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia. The route forms a 75-mile loop around the sharp peaks and vertical towers of the mountains clustered in the center.
The park beckons hundreds of travelers to visit each day during high season (December through March), with more piling in each year. The insanely high popularity of the park necessitates strict rules for the hikers: no wandering off the single-marked trail, no camping outside designated tent sites, no walking on the trail at night. A trek through Torres Del Paine is not exactly a lonely wilderness quest, but nor is it approaching the sterile entertainment of a crowded Disney theme park, as some people claim.
The trek certainly lacks the creature comforts of a Disney Resort. The moment I woke up on the morning we planned to hike the pass, I regretted it. Before I opened my eyes, I heard weary drops of rain slapping the tent, the remnants of the assault of the previous night’s storm. I kept my eyes shut, trying to convince myself the sound was fading. “It will stop in a few minutes, I should stay in my sleeping bag for now,” I thought.
It didn’t stop.
The necessity of getting an early start on the pass, however, eventually dragged me out of the relative comfort of the nylon walls. It’s not that I didn’t want to be outside in the rain. I can deal with putting on my rain jacket and shivering a bit in the sharp morning air. It’s that I was poignantly aware of the excruciating task that sat in front of us, like an unavoidable pile of dog shit in the streets of Santiago: packing the wet tent.
We knew we would probably face this challenge at some point on our nine-day trek. Patagonian weather is notoriously moody, and the rangers even posted a sign at one campsite that reads: “Don’t ask us about the weather, it’s Patagonia!” In a single day, a hiker can seemingly experience all four seasons as the weather turns from sunny and warm to windy and rainy to snowy and cold.
During this particular morning, a drop in temperature caused fat, wet snowflakes to begin interspersing themselves among the tired raindrops by the time we finished breakfast. The only task left was to pack the tent. Mud had made its way into every crevice, and by the time we’d wrestled the clogged buckles apart and peeled off the sopping rainfly (that part of the tent meant to deflect rain) our hands were already stiff with cold. Each time the tent fabric brushed against my hands, it felt like sandpaper was being rubbed against the raw skin. My boyfriend and I did our best to stay patient as we folded the rainfly.
“Fold it in half. No, the other way.”
“I thought we wanted to fold it in on itself?”
“That’s what I’m doing!”
“Give me that corner. No, not like that.”
“It won’t fit like this though.”
After a tense minute, the rainfly was piled into a vaguely rectangular shape on the ground. Next were the stakes and poles, which were apparently cemented into their clips by a combination of mud and gravel. Once we finally coaxed them out and the poles were collapsed, it was time to roll up the tent with the rainfly.
The ground was too wet to kneel as I normally would, so I squatted like a frog and laboriously scooted forward as I rolled the fabric as best as I could with hands that refused to bend. Tears of pain and frustration blurred my vision as I lifted the roll of soaking nylon and my boyfriend shoved it, inch by inch, into the bag, forcing it to fit so we wouldn’t have to refold it. Finally, he cinched it shut and we were done. Despite the steep climb that lay ahead of us, we knew the hardest part of our day was over.
We pulled our packs on, tightened a strap here and a strap there, and started our hike. Energy came back to our spirits with the warmth of our blood flow as we walked up the trail. Soon after beginning our ascent of the pass, though, I developed an appreciation for the fierce Patagonian wind about which we’d been warned.
It’s not that the wind was relentless, but rather mischievous. One moment the mountain was completely still and a steady layer of snow fell from above, and within half a step a transparent force threatened to knock me to the ground (succeeding only once), while the falling pellets transformed into a swirling swarm of angry hornets. Ten or twenty steps later, it softened and remained quiet once again, coiling as a jack-in-the-box for its next powerful gust. My 40-pound backpack helped anchor me to the ground, but also acted as a giant sail pulling me backwards down the mountain with each push of the wind.
One step at a time, I defied both wind and gravity, shuffling up the mountainside at an embarrassingly slow pace. Half of my weight was entrusted entirely to my trekking poles as I leaned heavily into them, anticipating the next gust of wind. The rain and snow mix soon transformed completely into snow as we gained elevation. Partially frozen streams crisscrossed our route, and I prayed for no wind each time I precariously balanced myself atop the small stepping stones to avoid the freezing water.
It took four hours of careful trudging to reach the top. We stopped just a few times to admire the surroundings: the valley behind us that faded in and out of view with the clouds that passed over it, the needle-sharp ridges on each side that were too steep even for snow to stick, the thick glacier sitting just a few hundred feet to our right. All this was nothing compared to the view awaiting us on the other side.
Looking at Glacier Grey from the top of the pass felt like we were in the presence of eternity. The silent glacier rested in the valley beneath us, with ice stretching back through the valley and piling up the mountainsides, eventually melting into the flat white of the February clouds. It looked like a pencil drawing, a scene in black and white. Except for the blue. That weird blue that only exists in layers of snow and ice. Like a cross between turquoise and electric blue, but with a hint of indigo and a neon glow. The blue showed up where crevasses in the surface of the glacier allowed us a glimpse into its depths.
It was hard to believe that this seemingly infinite glacier was just one small bit of the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field. At 104 square miles, Glacier Grey forms less than three percent of the 4,773-square-mile sheet of ice stretching across southern Chile and Argentina. The ice field represents the remnant of an even bigger ice sheet from the last glacial period, and now feeds dozens of glaciers across the continent. These glaciers are still carving the landscape of the region, scouring valleys and moving mountains with their incredible force.
The mountain didn’t allow us to enjoy the view of Glacier Grey for too long, forcing us to keep moving to escape the barrage of wind and snow. And so we descended, down the steep and muddy trail into the camp. Down beneath the snow, into clouds and rain and five more mornings of wrestling the tent into its bag at various levels of saturation, and into the more crowded section of the circuit trail, where we were soon to squelch ourselves into over-packed cooking shelters and swap trail stories with dozens of other trekkers.
And of course, we trekked down under the watchful gaze of the mountain, who stands sentry over this section of Patagonia as countless hikers scramble circles around her formidable base. I believe it is something about the juxtaposition of unique beauty and exhaustingly dark conditions that draws these hikers to submit to the shifting weather and experience the awe-inspiring bit of nature that is Torres Del Paine.
Laura works as a civil engineer to afford her true passions: backpacking, mountain biking, traveling, and writing. At the moment, she lives near Denver, Colorado, where she spends her free time playing in the Rocky Mountains and writing stories to share her adventures with others.