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DISPATCHES FROM A FAR OFF LAND: TORRES DEL PAINE

I was three cervezas deep and contemplating a fourth when the epiphany hit me: cavemen took selfies.  Now, I know what you’re thinking — Cavemen didn’t have phones.  (Or perhaps that I was under the influence  of something other than cerveza).  But, hear me out.  I am absolutely convinced cavemen took selfies, and by the end of this article, you too will believe.

See, my Spanish lover and I had recently abandoned our home in Auckland and our careers in TV and architecture to embark on a six month around-the-world odyssey.  I won’t call it a mid-life crisis.  (With modern medicine, forty is too young to be mid-life).  But, things were getting serious.  And talk of babies and marriage were starting to permeate every conversation.

 

So, the only sensible thing to do in that sort of situation is to run for the hills.  We figured, a good place to avoid the pitfalls of a life-more-serious, would be South America. The Parque Nationale.  Torres Del Paine.

 

There are certain places on this planet that seem to call to us.  A siren song blowing on the winds of Instagram feeds and condor’s cries seen on saved Pinterest boards.  Mythical lands of creatures and people who are far more exotic than we could ever believe exist — except we know they do, because they are documented in click-bait articles with titles like, “Ten Best Hikes in The World” and “Do This Before You Die!

 

So.  With cell phone in hand, ready to document that exquisite moment next to the towers and live in the rarefied air of instagram-fame, we set off on a hike into the unknown…

 

But first, some logistics; to paint the proper picture:

 

Torres Del Paine is located on the South-Western end of Chile.  It is part of a larger national park that has things like glaciers, pumas and icebergs.  So.  It’s safe to say it’s a bit wild.  Now, if you do enough googling you will quickly find out that there are two primary routes most people tramp: the “W” or the “O”.  Named for the way the trails mimic the shape of the letters.  The “O” is a circuit and takes between five and eight days.  The “W” between three and five.

 

We had planned on doing the “W”.  But, due to its recent popularity, I wasn’t able to secure campsites along our chosen route.  I only tried to book three months in advance…apparently you need to book at least six months in advance.  Who knew?  (Judging by the Spanish swear words that rained down on me; my Spanish lover knew.  She knew very well).  Anyway, we decided we could do just about the same hikes as everyone else, by simply keeping a base camp at the appropriately named; “Campamento Central”.

 

At campamento central, the tents were scattered around the grounds like brightly colored sprinkles on a child’s cupcake.  No rhyme or reason to it — just find a place and crash.  Every make, model, and brand of tenting kit was on display.  All the newest most expensive gadgets; from space-age materials all the way down to rough canvas and Warehouse quality disast-o-tents.  And the hikers matched the tents.  Your usual collection of vagabonds, hippies, retirees, tourists, gap year wanderers and busloads of very enthusiastic Chinese.  As a Yankiwi (an American expat Kiwi) and a Spaniwi (a Spanish expat Kiwi), we fit right in with the collection of world wandering backpackers.

 

We had allowed ourselves five days in the park.  Hoping to do a day-hike each day and effectively cover all the same trails as the “W”.  But, as we quickly learned, weather was a major factor.  After living in New Zealand for ten years, I thought I was used to it.  Four seasons in a day, and all that jazz.  But, we quickly learned, weather this far South is even more unpredictable.  It wasn’t just four seasons.  It was four years.  Weather cycled from balmy t-shirt sunny, down to frigid parka cold in hours.  And then, back again.  And then, back again.  But, our first day there, the weather dial got stuck firmly in frigid, rainy, cold, and shitty.  Winter.  We survived the day by driving through the park and guzzling cervezas by the refugio fire before retiring to our tent for a chilly sleep.

 

The next morning we woke up to a brilliant alpine glow on the mountains.  Within minutes the entire mountain range was lit up in exquisite hues of violet, sherbet and champagne.  The day promised to be sunny, and it was impossible for us to hide our giddy optimism.  We wasted no time.  Smashed down breakfast, geared up for the day, and went to the trailhead.  I quickly realized that you don’t come to the Torres hike looking for solitude.  It’s as busy as the Tongariro crossing.  Perhaps more so.  We joined the human train and began the four hour hike up the mountain.

 

And it got me to thinking (you have a lot of time to think while plodding uphill for four hours).   What draws us to these things?  A new type of hiker has emerged.  The selfie-instagram-twitter-book person who’s only motivation seems to be to get to the top as quickly as possible, take the perfect iconic selfie and run-away.  While others seek a deeper more spiritual connection.  To the process.  The mountain.  The mana.

 

And I questioned my own intent.  Why was I here?  Why had I travelled around the world to put my body through a small form of torture?  Just to what?  See?  Just to experience?  To brag?  Because that’s it.  Isn’t it?  As much as I loathed the selfie-taking, instagram-loving, drone-flying masses.  Had I become one too?

 

I guess we all like to think we’re unique.  That our experiences are just that: ours.  That, though we may share them with others; our experiences, our feelings and our memories, are just a little bit more special than our neighbors.  We all have some unique contribution we’re giving to the world.  That our time on this planet isn’t just to take.  To use.  And to discard.  Perhaps by seeing these spectacular places we get a better sense of the planet’s majesty?  Perhaps we learn to appreciate how fleeting and special these places and moments are?  As we trod in the footsteps of generations of trampers, surely we must appreciate those that came before us and we have a duty to protect the land and the place for those that will come after?

 

The hours passed merrily by as we walked along the river in Valle Ascencio.  My mind was left open to contemplate all nature of things because the trail was so obvious and well marked that the only real danger was to accidentally step into a pile of mule shit.  We listened to the torrent of ice-cold glacier water as it sped down the valley.  Crashing and churning it’s way to carving out a deeper gorge, even as we watched.  The views grew more spectacular with every step we took, and as we gained elevation the weather cooled and we began putting layers on to protect from the cold.

 

And then, we turned toward the mountain face and began the final push up a skree field, toward the towers.  Summit fever gripped us and we finished the last little bit with rictus grins stuck on our faces; frozen in place by a cold wind.  We pushed up and over the final wall, and there they were.  The towers.  The lake.  The view we’d seen in a hundred photos online.  And now.  There they were.  And, they were magnificent.

 

A small glacier lake lay before the three prominent spires; the water dyed a spectacular turquoise by the minerals brought out by the glacier.  The towers themselves, thrust prominently up into a layer of low lying clouds.  The harsh grey granite unmoved by the effects of eons of harsh winds, rain, snow and erosion.  Standing fiercely thrust up into the clouds.  A defiant and impenetrable stillness pointing up into the heavens.  Mother Nature saying, “See?  See what I can do?  Behold my beauty.  Respect it.”

 

And I confess, the towers were spectacular.  And they filled me with a sense of giddy achievement.  And I couldn’t help but scamper around the lake edge looking for the perfect picture.  Trying to capture the moment.  To somehow immortalize something that is simply impossible to capture.  To bottle the emotions and feelings and love for a later date.  We took hundreds of pictures.  Along with the masses up there, we somehow had our own unique experience.  And though it wasn’t a solitary moment.  A moment called down by God; it was a shared moment.  And as I looked around at all the other hikers; smiling, staring, and taking countless photos… I realized it was selfish of me to try and keep this place to myself.  To think that only I had sacrificed to get here.  That only I deserved to see this.  We all had worked just as hard.  We all had sacrificed something to get here.  And we all deserved our picture of the prize.

 

I just sat there.  Taking it all in.  Munching on some scroggin.  Blissing out on the splendor.

 

And then, we turned and walked down.  Having taken all the photos we could.  Having breathed as much of the alpine air as we could.  We turned and retraced our steps back down the mountain.  Living in the pleasant afterglow of achievement.  Having witnessed something marvelous and in some ways indescribable.  We enjoyed the afternoon sunshine as the shadows grew longer down in the valley.  Our steps quickened by the promise of a warm meal and a cold beer down in the refugio.

 

And where do the cavemen fit into all this, you ask?   Well, it was the next day, when we went to a different part of the park, looking for a flat hike to ease the pain out of our legs.   As  we walked along the high steppe plains, I found myself in a pensive mood.  Cheered somewhat by the prior day’s achievement, but still a bit troubled.  Was I just like all the other instagramers?  Just looking for a moment to capture and forget?  A narcissistic hypocrite just hoping to brag?

 

We ambled along the trail for a while, admiring the guanaco bones left scattered in the field.  (Evidence of recent puma kills).  And continued our walk until we got to a massive stone outcropping.  We made our way up the side of the granite rock formation until we got to a shelf-cave.  And there they were: prehistoric cave drawings.  Paintings made by some of the first hikers in the park.  The Aonikenk.  A nomadic tribe of hunter gatherers who gave the Torres their name.  Named Paine because it meant “blue” in their language.  Some 3,000 to 8,000 years old.  Made of blood and iron dust, the red paintings depict a picture of a hunter, his handprint, guanacos, and fierce pumas.  Warning of danger and of bravery.  A moment documented  for all who come after.  A selfie.  A caveman selfie.

 

And, that’s when I realized, it’s part of human nature.  As old as time.  We can’t help ourselves.  It is hardwired into our DNA.  The hypocrisy and guilt I was feeling was misplaced.  The nature of these amazing places, is to share them.  Whether it’s on social media, or in a magazine.  On film, or in a story around a campfire.  We do these adventures to fulfill some part of our soul that yearns and calls out for more.  But, in the accomplishment of these things, we also need to share the adventure.  Not to be narcissistic or braggadocious, but to inspire.  To encourage our fellow man.  Just to say;  See?  If I can do it, you can do it too.

 

So, I ordered that fourth cerveza.  And I toasted it to cavemen and selfies and the spirit of adventure.  And I sat humbled and grateful.   Content in my newfound knowledge that the world, and the people in it are built to share, not just accomplishments, but joy.  And so I say to you: adventure is calling.  What are you waiting for?

 

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