Refugio Paine Grande –> Campamento Los Cuernos (12.5km)
Wet socks. Lost spork. 70km/hr winds. Broken tent.
All good things must come to an end, including the previous day’s sunny weather. In retrospect, I had the omen before I even left my dorm at Refugio Paine Grande. The thick wool hiking socks I had so lovingly washed the night before were still wet. And yes, I did wash all of my socks. Rookie mistake. Well, no problem. A quick glance out the window assured me that the weather was fine to hike in my sandals, which I had purchased specifically because they were completely strapped in, and had good support. I would strap the socks to my pack and let them dry while I walked.
As I departed Refugio Paine Grande, I passed a ranger station, which gave me my second sign of bad things to come. It was the day I would pass Frances Valley, with the Mirador Britanico overlook, the middle section of the W-trek. The rangers were informing everyone that the valley trail up to the overlook was closed due to severe weather. That was fine. It was an idea I had toyed with – dropping off my heavy pack at Campamento Italiano and taking a detour to Mirador Britanico. But I was already the slowest in my hiking group, and this “detour” would have added an extra 11km to my day. The closure gave me the easy way out of making a decision.
And still I kept on with no qualms about what lied ahead. Sure, there might be severe storms in the mountains, but I only had clouds and strong winds. Not a quarter-mile from Refugio Paine Grande did it start raining in ernest. At least I was wearing sandals! Only after a couple of miles did I remember that my once half-dry socks would now completely soaked again, if they were even still attached to my pack.
And so it went, for all 12.5km of the day. I was cold, soaked to the bone, and had several near misses of being blown straight over by the 70km/hr (40+ mph) gales coming off Lagos Pehoé and Nordenskjold. (A friend of mine did get knocked over.) Once I reached Campamento Italiano, I joined a crowd of 20+ other hikers huddled under the one-room shanty used for cooking. This marked day two of actually stopping and preparing a lunch, but this time, I was getting distressed. On the one hand, I thought warm food would help, but on the other hand, I was wary of the dangers of standing around soaking wet in what felt like 40˚F temperatures. During lunch I put on as many extra layers as I could, decided to wear my soaking wet boots barefoot, and forged ahead.
I don’t remember much of that day, except that it was a huge relief to get to Campamento Los Cuernos and set up my tent. This campsite was unique: tents were to be set up on raised platforms, and cooking wasn’t allowed (which was just as well, because I discovered that I had somehow lost my spork). Everyone had to eat the refugio-provided meal. After futzing around with my tent, trying to find a platform sheltered from the wind, and desperately trying to tighten it down as much as possible, I ran into the refugio where I treated myself to a beer, a puzzle, and some much-needed warmth.
When they kicked us out to set up dinner, everyone went over to the “warm room.” It wasn’t much, but it had a few picnic tables and a heartening wood-burning stove in the corner. The thrill over the wood-burning stove wasn’t to last long though. As I ran out to check on my tent, I saw the most dispiriting sight of all. My poor, brand new tent, purchased just for the trip, was on its side, desperately trying to blow away from the snapped poles that had once held it taut.
I went back to the refugio and attempted to explain the situation to one of the staff there, without knowing the Spanish word for “tent” or “broken.” With the help of other staff, we managed to piece it together, and thankfully they had two refugio tents left open that night. (Many of the campsites have a service offering pre-set tents to guests, so you don’t have to carry your own.) The staff was also helpful enough to call ahead to my final night’s campsite and check that they too had an extra tent for the next day. With that settled, I returned to disassemble my sorry tent, and attempted to hang it up to dry in the warm room.
Somewhere in the midst of this, I sat down to dinner with several friends from the trails. We shared a bottle of wine, and after dinner we continued to share wine while letting our socks and shoes dry by the stove. Although I made it to about 80% comfortable and dry, the evening only slightly restored my morale, and it was with dread that I made my way to my new camp tent. Ironically, this turned out to be the best part of the day. Because they don’t get carried anywhere, the camp tents were much thicker than my 3-season tent, and thus much warmer. It was one of the warmest and snuggly outdoor nights I had on the trip. The tent was even surrounded by trees and sheltered from wind, which would have been good four hours previously, but now just had me unsettled over the potential of falling branches. Indeed, when I woke up, there were several larger branches that had fallen around my tent.
This was, without doubt, the most miserable day of my hike (reward for most painful goes to Campamento Grey). But things were looking up the following morning, and the rest of the trip was, quite thankfully, uneventful.