It was the longest four hours of my life.
Long, excruciating, ardous four hours. I sat on a boulder in despair, seriously contemplating, “Should I return to Singapore?”
I knew my trek was over at that instance. The pain was overwhelming. Tears filled the brim of my eyes. Each step I took, I screamed involuntarily - to no one. The only sounds that accompanied me were the thunderous cracking of the avalanches, as if the mountains were roaring with laughter at my weakness.
What goes up, must come down. I had to make it back to camp, maybe the park ranger could help.
Step by step, I struggled to put each foot before the other. I was so slow I might as well crawl. The terrain didn’t help. Rocks, boulders and gravels of different sizes jut out from the downhill path, creating an unevenness that strained my knee furthermore.
The pain got to my head, my vision narrowed to the path right ahead, such that I went off the well-trodden path several times. The combination of agonizing pain and being lost made me lose faith.
Mother Nature, please help me.
It was day three of the popular five days W-Trek in Torres del Paine, a top experience in many backpacker's South America Bucket List.
I was only halfway up to the viewpoint Mirador Britanico when I felt a sharp pain in my left knee. I ignored it only to have it flare up an hour later.
I have felt pain in my knees before; but this level of pain I’ve never experienced. It felt as if a thousand needles were heated with Dragonfire, then used to stab the side of my knees right into the ligament, a thousand times over.
I knew my body. I couldn’t make it to the next camp before sunset, and pushing on would only destroy my knee completely.
It was a pity. Torres del Paine has been amazing to me for the past two days. Notoriously known for having an unpredictable climate, the weather had been perfect. The scenery… oh god don’t get me started.
How would I even put it into words?
Imagine starting at Paine Grande, in an area that looks like a barren land - dry, yellow bushes at waist height. The terrain is flat which makes having a conversation easy.
Then, all of a sudden, it gets steep going uphill. Trees appear, but they are leave-less. Panting hard under the sweltering heat, you take off your jacket, wearing only your T-shirt on an autumn afternoon.
As you reach the top of the hill, a large stunning lake appears. It’s calm and deep and reflecting the red, yellow, orange of the trees surrounding it. One moment ago, trees were leave-less. Now, they sport autumn colours.
After stopping for a few minutes to appreciate the beauty of the lake (there’s something about water that makes you reflect), you continue your journey under the sweltering heat.
You get thirsty, and the next second, you hear a stream of running water. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect!
You fill your water bottle under the running water and drink from it. It’s just water, but it’s the tastiest ice-cold water you’ve ever had. Pure Patagonia water! Feeling refreshed, you continue.
The hardened mud path gave way to a gravel path. Instead of appreciating the natural beauty surrounding you, you keep an eye on the path filled with small insidious rocks. You wouldn’t want to sprain your ankle, do you?
As you walk into a forest, the temperature dropped drastically. The trees provide shade from the relentless sun and it feels like autumn again. You put on your jacket, only to walk out of the forest 10 minutes later with the sun beating down on you again and sweat rolling down your face.
Damn you Patagonia weather!
As you approach the next viewpoint, you see a crowd holding out their cameras pointing to the famous Glacier Grey, a few kilometres away. It looks unreal with that shade of sky blue on a megastructural piece of ice, shoved between multiple snow-capped mountains.
You see two cute Korean girls doing jumpshots on the cliff, even though the glacier is kilometres away and you gave up trying to take a photo. They wave to you when they caught you looking at them and giggle like shy schoolgirls.
You bid farewell and continue your journey up and down more slopes, mud and gravel path before finally reaching your campsite. At last, after almost 7 hours, you let go of your heavy backpack, ready to relax only to realize you have to pitch your tent before the sun sets. Sigh.
Booking the campsites for the Torres del Paine trek is notoriously difficult especially in the peak season. Here is a detailed guide to understanding the booking system of TDP.
Dinnertime is you squeezing into a small room (if you're lucky) with dozens of other hikers, huddled over a small personal fire, cooking the limited option pasta you brought from town.
At night, it’s a clear sky full of stars. The temperature falls below zero. You flip and turn, zipping up your sleeping bag like a cocoon, but the cold is unbearable. You wake up to find a mouse scurrying away from your backpack, and ice flakes atop your tent.
This goes on for the next few days, alternating between barren landscapes and autumn-coloured trees, muddy uphill slopes and gravel downhill path.
Throw in snow-capped mountains, rushing waterfalls, and white leave-less trees - resulting from a huge forest fire years ago but leave a hauntingly beautiful image in your mind – and you get Torres del Paine.
Everywhere in the national park is photogenic and picturesque, but reaching the famous three peaks that give the park its namesake after five challenging days would be an achievement for me.
Alas, I didn't make it.
My trekking partner J and I made the toughest decision to split as I gritted my teeth and limped back into camp. She continued her way towards Camp Cuernos, battled a mini-blizzard and made it all the way up to the Torres; while I slowly made my way back to the catamaran at the first instance of daybreak.
I barely made it on time as the catamaran docked into port. I wore my military pants and jacket, held a trekking pole and limped with one leg. It looks as if I just walked out of a warzone, holding a rifle, and injured my leg in battle. Instead of explosions in the background, it was the majestic mountains behind me.
As I walked out of the national park, I bade farewell to Torres del Paine.
Through this disappointing experience, I learnt that attempting a multi-day trek without any prior experience is not ideal. I learnt that my trekking partner J is one tough chick. And I also learnt that whoever said mind over matter, obviously hadn’t hurt himself physically bad enough.
You can find a more detailed breakdown of the W-Trek with pretty photos here. If, like me, you are not as well-prepared to do the full 5 days, you can always go for the day hike to Mirador las Torres, the iconic 3 peaks of Torres del Paine or choose one of the following day tours:
And now, it's your turn.