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The Big Hike in Torres Del Paine National Park

I’d like to give a health warning here. I nearly died on several occasions! Now I hope at this stage you’ll all be deciding not to read this edition of the blog as it would be too traumatic but I suspect not!

Okay, so it’s official, I’m not well prepared for the 4 day Hard Core Patagonian Trek. I thought I was fit but it turns out I’m ‘Park Run on the Flat Round Gloucester Park For 50 Minutes Fit’ not Andean Mountain Fit. My boots are good thanks to taking out a second mortgage to buy them but that’s where it ends. My charity shop clothes are useless. Everyone else has got these fancy hiking trousers but I’ve got Kathryn’s Queens Belfast University Rowing jogging bottoms (let’s see if she really does read this blog because she doesn’t know I’ve nicked them!) and a pair of water proof trousers in case of rain. After the first day of hiking I returned sopping wet with sweat. Now this was serious because the morning we left I got side tracked taking views of the magnificent sunrise over the mountains and forgot to pack my spare set of clothes. Luckily we weren’t wild camping so I sat in the warm coffee bar for 5 hours and even got to see the sun set over the offending mountain. Rick, on the other hand, was bone dry. He showed me his bamboo shirt (I kid you not!) that absorbs sweat.

My beanie style hat which I got out of a bag containing 5,000 hats in the under stairs cupboard definitely should have been road tested before this trip. It says “Thinsulate” on it but it is far too big and feels as if it is going to whizz off in the wind and fly over a precipice at any moment. I may have to investigate lost property. Most people only stay a night or two in these places so any one who has lost property is probably at Machu Picchu by now.

“I’ve lost my beanie/bamboo shirt/walking trousers. Do you have them in lost property?”

We picked up three guides in Puerto Natales, the last trace of civilisation we’ll see for 5 days. No internet connection which is rare in the modern world. One man and two women who are all built like mountain goats. They brief us about the rules of the park which I’m sure include not breathing, and tell us about the walks which include flat and steep sections.

We set up camp on the first night at Lago Pehoe. It was the first time we had used the Dragoman A-frame tents. We had a demonstration on how to set them up then dinner prepared by the crew. I shared with Scottish Christine. At about 4 am in the morning I had a claustrophobic induced panic attack. I wanted my Mum, I wanted Richard, I wanted the kids, I wanted Joan Risby’s ladybird night light that she never sleeps without (well that and Frank, obviously) but none was possible. I took some deep breaths to help me relax. I am sure that if I had woken Scottish Christine she would have helped me but I have known her for less than a week so that was not desirable. Eventually, I calmed down and dozed until Scottish Christine’s dawn chorus alarm went off. Claustrophobia has crept up on me in recent years because when I was in my twenties, Richard and I did some caving and you had to crawl in on your stomach through a very enclosed opening for about 30 meters. Anyone claustrophobic couldn’t do it. In the past few years, however, I have had panic attacks in two mosque minarets and a Bedouin tent in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Added to this is those coffin like toilets in West End Theatres.

The next morning we got a catamaran over the lake to Paine Grande Lodge and Camping Zone. Guide Jazz stayed behind with the truck and lucky for him that he did because he’s on my hit list. He’s done the trek 5 times before so he let Driver Darren do it instead. On the night before we left I was doing my washing up from dinner at the sink outside the toilet block when I was hit on the head (not hard Dragoman George and Heather, if you’re reading this. I don’t want him sacked for physically assaulting a passenger- yet! Perhaps just a stern chat in his next appraisal!). I looked behind me- no one! I even looked above me- no one! Looking very confused, I noticed the local guide beside me looked horrified. I then realised there was a window leading to the men’s toilets and that Jazz had been laying in wait to stick his hand out and hit me on the head. You’d have thought he’d won a gold medal in winding up “difficult passengers” he was that triumphal! He timed it to perfection so he must have done it countless times before. Basically, we’re being guided by a big kid! When poor Scottish Christine sustained an injury at the start of the first hike and had to return to base camp, I warned her not to take any messing from Dennis the Menace!

Dragoman George has become a Walking Pole Technician. Jazz and Driver Darren said he likes working in the Dragoman Workshop so when Scottish Christine was having problems with her poles I suggested she speak to him. He solved her problem but as he is plain speaking, he said her poles were ‘cheap’. She begged to differ as she spent 60 pounds on them. Mind you, it wasn’t personal because when he helped me lengthen mine he said they were ‘Chinese knock offs’. You wait until I speak to Richard who sourced them for me!

The young Danish women are fantastic! I’m feeling very negative about the Dutch after my Beagle Channel Boat Trip but I’m currently making plans to move to Denmark on the basis that if all Danes are as great as these 6 young women, it must be a great country. They are very kind and caring, not just towards each other but to the rest of the group. “Hi Jayne!”; “Did you sleep well?”; “Are you coming to the nightclub?” (I say yes because we all know there are no nightclubs in Patagonia!); “I’ve got your poles and I’m happy to carry them to the campsite.”. When they are talking in Danish they are like a flock of starlings but they do, of course, speak excellent English.

There are two separate Danish groups. There are four in their early twenties whom I have christened The Spice Girls. They are fans. Caroline is definitely Baby Spice. She looks about 12 years old. I’m sure she was in my Year 8 English Class last year! I keep expecting her to admit she’s bunking from school to come on this trip. Emma is very vivacious and outgoing. Amalia is, as I have said, my amigo and at one point she even risked her life to fill my water bottle from a very fast flowing river. One false move and she would have been swept away, never to be seen again. I am eternally grateful. Poor Pernille was very gracious about the fact that it took me ages to learn her name. It’s a Danish name and she eventually helped me out by telling me it rhymes with vanilla.

The other pair are Amanda who is 27 years old and works with anorexic girls. Annie is in her early thirties and is a travel agent. She sometimes books her clients on Dragoman Trips. When I fell behind on the first trek because I was taking photos and using my binoculars, they made sure they stayed with me. I was very touched.

The first hike to Grey Glacier View Point started to climb through a “Game of Thrones” style gorge and then along a ridge with views of a glacial lake, turquoise icebergs and a glacier. Much of the area was burnt in 2011 because an Israeli hiker burnt his toilet paper to get rid of it. He was fined $5,000 and left a lasting legacy because it will take 80-100 years for the area to regenerate owing to slow growth in cold conditions. We did, however, find an area of trees to have lunch. At the Grey Glacier View Point there was an ‘incident’ because the itinerary (which I haven’t read in too much detail because my trip is 101 days whilst many are on a 22 day trip) says we have the option to go to the next view point but the guides are adamant that we can’t. They say, ‘We don’t have the right permits’, ‘it’s dangerous’, ‘We’re not insured’, ‘Donald Trump has ordered it to be closed’, you name it! Driver Darren and Dragoman George try to argue the toss with them but they won’t budge. Many in the group are ‘well pissed off!’. I don’t get involved because, until now, it’s been me doing all the complaining. I later found out that the other Dragoman group, doing a similar trip, went to the second view point only a few days earlier. Proof if ever you needed it that we were being fed a lot of you know what!

At the briefing in the evening, after the 5 star dinner. Okay, I was expecting bush camping so anything seems 5 star (see the bit about me not reading the itinerary), I take Sweet Smily Camilla, the guide, to task. She’s now turned in to lying toad Camilla:

Me: I thought you said it was flat, Camilla!

Camilla: Yes, Patagonian flat which is up and down.

I politely suggest she reclassify it as ‘very fucking steep’.

I leave the briefing feeling as if I am about to climb Mt Everest which doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep.

For all you sanctimonious armchair travellers who are appalled by my deteriorating language, don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my hiking boots on Patagonian Fucking Flat!

Joan Risby posted the following comment on Facebook when I announced I would be in the wilderness for 5 days:

‘Don’t talk to strangers, don’t accept any sweets and don’t eat yellow snow!”

Joan has pretended to be an Andean expert for years but, in reality, she just took a posh train to Machu Picchu!

Update on lost property: I go to the lodge reception desk and ask about lost property. “No, sorry, ask the restaurant”; “No sorry, ask at the shop”; “No, sorry, ask at the camping reception”. “No sorry, nowhere else to ask!” Now, you’re not telling me that no one loses anything at a camp ground. Just as I’m leaving the final option, I notice a box of bits. “Isn’t this lost property?” I ask. “Yes, you just take what you like and leave a donation.” At last! I find an unattractive pink wool hat but it has a tie to stop it flying off. I also take a scarf and a smaller water bottle. Result! Sadly there are no bamboo tops or hiking trousers but one can’t have it all!

Camping is turning me in to Mr Bean! When I come out of the coffee bar at 10 pm it is dark and I realise I don’t have my torch. Note to self: find torch before dark and have it with you. I emerge to a scene that looks like Glastonbury; a sea of tents. I hear myself say, ‘What the fuck!’ out loud because I don’t have a clue where my tent is located. We’re in North Face tents that are apparently used for Antarctica so I’m looking forward to snuggling down in it but I have visions of sleeping in the toilet block! The first tent I go in to has two posh mattresses so not mine; the next tent has a German couple having sex (okay, they may not have been having sex but in my panic to re-zip the half open tent, that is the vision I have in my head). I try to find someone from my group but head torches mean you just get blinded and can’t tell who the hell is whom! I get seriously stressed out at this point. Panic attack 2 and I’m only one day in to the hard core hike. I tell myself to take some deep breaths so I can think straight. Bamboo Rick said, when we were discussing this issue earlier, that he only knew his tent from the large rock outside it. I know my tent was near one of the board walks but now they seem to fan out like Medusa’s hair! I finally go for a possible tent but as I crawl in I can only see a body covered in a sleeping bag. It could be a hairy biker for all I know. ‘Christine, is that you?’ I whisper. It is Scottish Christine and she is very gracious about being woken up by me.

Day 2 may not have been Mt Everest but it must have been in the Top Ten most difficult hikes in the world! We set off at 8 am with full ruck sacks because we were moving camps. Scottish Christine who, as mentioned before, had an injury so had to return to base camp, kindly agreed to take a few things I’d decided I could do without. Even so, Aussie Heather, who buys everything in miniature, said, ‘Your pack is very large!’.’

It starts with Patagonian ‘very fucking steep’ flat but we ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’! This section takes 2.5 hours. We then leave our ruck sacks at a camp site and take a day pack up French Valley which should be called ‘Dead Woman’s Valley’ after me because it is an absolute killer. It is a dead end (pardon the pun!) so what goes up, must come down. It’s also a glacial moraine and has rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes. I swear some of them were the size of small cars! It was like climbing up a rockery for an hour! My ankles ached! My knees ached! My hips ached! Muscles I didn’t know I had ached! We got to the Hanging Glacier View Point and had lunch.

At this point, there was the option to go on. The guides had tried to put us off but as they pushed their luck the day before, they couldn’t pull that stunt again. Aussie Heather and I decide to grit our teeth and go for it. About half the group decide to turn back. I’m feeling smug that many of them are younger than me but then I realise that four of the group going on are in their 60s: Dragoman George is 67, the American Man is 66, Bamboo Rick is 63 and Dragoman Heather is in her early sixties (I ask Dragoman George but he’s not quite sure). They’re all much fitter and faster than me! Last November Dragoman George and Heather hiked to Everest Base Camp; the kind of training that I think is cheating! They clearly went to much trouble to make themselves look good on this trip!

At lunch I comment on how glamorous Dragoman Heather looks. She could have just walked out of a hair salon. I looked as if I’d just been pulled through a hedge backwards! Dragoman George, her plain speaking Husband, said to me, ‘Yer, you’re probably not bothered about looking glamorous even in everyday life.’ Harsh but probably true. Dragoman Heather gave me permission to shout at him. Again with Dragoman George, it’s not personal because the next day he asked Newcastle Dean why he was wearing a condom on his head. It was a bandana but Newcastle Dean’s retort was that it was for protection!

Most of the final slog to the British View Point was not so tough as the first section but it’s all relative. Let’s say 7/10 rather than 9/10. I’m afraid I have to report my first major injury. I slipped trying to climb up on to one of those boulders the size of a Mini Cooper. I bent my index finger right back and badly bruised my shins. My finger swelled up and went very red and as I write this, over a week later, I am still suffering.

The last fifteen minutes of this section was very tough; think mountain goat country. My mantra was just one foot in front of the other! Every single bit of me was in pain! Just when I thought I was going to die we reached the reward of a spectacular amphitheatre of mountains. Aussie Heather and I high fived each other, feeling on top of the world in more than one sense of the word!

Job done, we gloried in our achievement, whilst gazing at the spectacular mountain scenery and taking a million photos. It was a very iconic scene for this region. Then reality hit, we still had 5 hours hiking to go. Yes, you did hear that correctly! 5 hours! We had to return to our back packs which involved ‘that’ section of moraine. It was just as bad going down as going up! We picked up our ruck sacks at the camp ground and it was still 2 hours to go (2 hours, 20 minutes and 37 seconds in my case) to where we were sleeping.

I am pleased to report that on Day 2, according to Aussie Heather’s smart watch, we did 47,000 steps and burnt 6,000 calories. Result! Perhaps we can sit around for the next 4 days, do nothing and eat what we like! Sadly, our guides, who are definitely fascists, have other ideas!

The delightful Danes think they’re my style gurus! When I literally staggered in to camp they advised me not to wear the hat. When I told them it covers my sweat sodden hair, they pulled it off, had a good laugh and took lots of photos! They also asked me if I was going to cope with the walk the next day! I know Aussie Heather called us a pair of “Old Chucks” but she’s my age so can get away with it! Mind you, I got I got my own back the next morning! I asked them why they hadn’t joined me for the 5 kilometre ‘Lakeside Run’. Hadn’t they seen the posters for it? Caroline nearly choked on her tooth paste. It took a while and a few old cynics for them to realise I was joking.

I tell The Delightful Danes that I am 40% Danish. This confirms my membership of The Danish Sisterhood. In reality, the dna test I had done said I was 39% Scandinavian but I am now so desperate to be Danish I am comparing my features to these ancestors of Danish Viking Princesses and we have much in common. I must be Danish! Will it help me get a Danish passport when we leave the E.U.? I am confident the Delightful Danes will support my application.

The tents at the second campsite were on wooden platforms with what looked like a thick Scottish grouse moor around them. As we slept, the fast flowing river nearby provided the equivalent of soothing whale music.

The restaurant was ski lodge style with a roaring fire and the dinner, which included moussaka, was delicious. The only difference to a European Ski Lodge was the protests and campaigning covering the walls. The topic was femicide. There were posters to show how many women died last year and so far this year. A bra and a profile with a photo was displayed for each woman who has died so far this year and there was a protest poem on a large sheet. Chile certainly take protesting to a whole different level.

The breakfast was excellent with freshly squeezed raspberry juice and proper coffee. Rachel told me she was channelling her inner Jayne (I was thinking of you Jemma Jopson!). I was so chuffed I didn’t check which bit of ‘Jayne’ she was channelling. I assumed it was ‘positive Jayne’ or ‘humorous Jayne’ or ‘resilient Jayne’ but no it was ‘sassy Jayne’. Bloody cheek! From now on she will be known as Ruthless Rachel. Mind you, shortly afterwards I refused burnt toast that the waiter tried to give me and asked for some that wasn’t burnt. Now in my world that’s not unreasonable but those around me found it really funny. When I asked them if they would be happy to eat burnt toast they said no but would be too scared to say anything! Hopefully, from now on ‘Sassy Jayne’ will be a role model because you just can’t go through life with that sort of attitude! Plus burn toast gives you cancer and Coronavirus!

Matt, who thought it was really funny to tell me he’d just taken the last coffee, asked me about the worst incident I had to deal with at school. I gave him a few from my extensive repertoire of classics. Ruthless Rachel then reminded him that he got in to trouble for asking a teacher out. He said he was dared to tell the young female technology teacher she was ravishing and ask her out to the cinema when he was about 13 years old. He said he got it slightly wrong and said she was ‘radishing like the vegetable. He recalls that the next thing he knew, he was man handled out of the room by two more senior male technology teachers who he said fancied her. Isn’t the prima of a 13 year old great? So these two male technology teachers were worried about the 13 year old competition? He said he ended up digging a pond on a Saturday morning. Ruthless Rachel said at this point, “Well you did go to a wanky school.” I assumed this must be a school for juvenile delinquents and that Matt had turned a corner to get in to a Russell Group University and become a quantity surveyor but no, it turns out it is a private school. Ruthless Rachel concluded that if Matt is a product of a private school then they can’t be good value for money. Matt just shrugged, as usual. A serious discussion on the education system ensued. Ruthless Rachel said you could do well where ever you went if you put your mind to it. What sort of a school did Ruthless Rachel go to? Yes, you’ve guessed it, she didn’t sit in a comprehensive school class with that group of kids who don’t want to learn and just disrupt the class for everyone else. No, she went to a grammar school!

The guides would make good prison guards on a chain gang! They were always there going, “Come on, Jayne! Keep up!”, “Don’t fall behind!”, “You need to go faster, Jayne!” I was usually last to the rest stops. No sooner did I roll in than they were gathering up their things and heading on again. In addition, the Delightful Danes would give me a big round of applause and shout, “Jayne, you made it!” They meant well but it just drew attention to how pathetic I was. Driver Darren thought it was funny to tell people just arriving after one particularly hard slog up the mountain to grab a quick photo as we were off when really it was the lunch stop.

On Day Three, I made a pact with the Delightful Danes that they would stay behind me to make me look good. It lasted to the next rest stop and I played out in my head the praise and compliments I would get but no one even noticed! Bastards!

Being at the back for most of the 4 day walk but it did have its advantages as the young male guide, Christian, was often bringing up the rear! He was like a young Keanu Reeves with the knowledge of David Attenborough and I had him all to myself! Flora, fauna, geology, his love life! You name it! I got the low down! I decided I needed my picture taken with my own personal guide. He was happy to comply but as I went to put my arm around his waist, because of his ruck sack it ended up on his bum! Not only was I ‘awkward old woman’, now I was ‘creepy old woman’.

By mid afternoon on Day 3, I was wandering along on my own, enjoying a bit of time to myself to day dream and put the world to rights in my head. One of the down sides to a group trip is a lack of privacy and personal space. Unfortunately, my peace and quiet was shattered by Jazz, the guide, who had parked at the end campsite and was hiking to meet us. Well I say hiking, he was in shorts and flip flops! He is very tactile and gave me a big hug before moving on to annoy other members of the group. To Jazz’s credit, he is very good at making everyone feel important and special. He’s only 30 so has far more in common with all the younger members of the group who are predominantly attractive females but he gave equal attention to everyone. Mind you, he’s no angel. As a Sikh, I know for a fact he shouldn’t drink to access, smoke, take drugs or have sex before marriage. I can confirm he does all of these unless it is his mum reading, in which case this blog is, of course, very exaggerated. Jasbinder is in bed by nine o’clock every night and would never do any of the things mentioned previously. Jazz said his Mum once came on one of his trips and all the passenger knew he smoked apart from, of course, his Mum. He’s very scared of his Mum so if he’s being annoying you can just threaten him with her. He’s not entirely sure I can’t track her down on the internet! Like I said before, we’re being guided by a big kid!

As the walk on Day 3 came to an end and Aussie Heather and I started to chat about this, that and the other, we fell far behind. Christian, the guide, was supposed to be behind us at all times but he started to drift ahead. Heather and I hid behind a bush to see how long it took him to stop. Childish I know but fun! And the answer is, a long time!

The final campsite where we stayed for two nights was disappointing compared to the first two nights. What happened to, save the best to last? Mind you, Camilla the guide did save me the only tent with a really nice foam mattress. Must have felt sorry for me! The trip to the toilet and shower block was like the distance to Tescos from where I live but I was desperate for a shower as I smelt really badly, as did everyone else, so I was forced to bite the bullet!

After dinner in a dome tent, we went over to the refugio (hostel) where we found a snug with a roaring fire. One group left quite early, before I was ready to go, but the other group looked as if they were there for the duration so I told Jazz I would do the ten minute walk back by myself. ‘Will you be able to find your way?’ he asked.

‘Oh yes!’ I replied, ‘And hopefully, I won’t get eaten by a puma!’

Off I set but I found that there were paths all over the place and out there in the dark, my joke about the puma didn’t feel so much like a joke. I returned before I lost sight of the refugio and got seriously lost.

Back at the snug I said to Jazz, ‘So the answer to the question, “Will you be able to find your way?” is no!’

I then had to wait for about 45 minutes for the rest of them to decide to go. Once out in the dark, Jazz got lost. Initially, I thought he was trying to wind me up but I soon detected the panic in his voice as he struggled to find the way in the dark. The next morning, I joked with Dragoman George and Heather about the 5 counts of attempted corporate manslaughter they were facing.

The final day, up to the three towers, was the piece de resistance. Also known as a bloody hard slog! South African Amanda has the voice of an opera singer and she kept our spirits up by singing, ‘You’ll never walk alone!” The weather was not great but we soldiered on with Dragoman George telling us the weather would clear up by 11am. It did improve but not to the perfection I had been hoping for since I booked the trip. This and Machu Picchu are the big ones! We did see them but not with the blue sky back drop I had hoped I would see.

End of Day 4:

2 aching limbs (legs)

8 aching joints

5,742 aching muscles

0 blisters (very proud of this as other members of the group are covered in them- you see slow and steady really does pay off! I might be the tortoise and you the hare but who’s laughing now, eh?)

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