Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine

I can’t stand camping. I have no idea why any sane person would choose to sleep on the floor beneath a sheet of plastic for pleasure. Camping only works when the conditions are absolutely perfect. In the UK, the weather is often far from perfect, and yet, so many people still do it. It baffles me.

Too hot and you spend all night sweating and suffocating in stagnant air, even with the tent door wide open. And why would you leave it open? It’s an invitation for all manner of insects, invertebrates, and small mammals to join you in what is already very limited comfort. Not to mention the gnats and mosquitoes intent on making your life hell, existing purely to deprive you from any degree of sleep, let alone pleasure. Yes there’s those inner mesh panels, but in the height of summer without a hint of a breeze you wouldn’t think so.

Too cold and you feel like you’re sleeping in a chest freezer. Invariably you end up putting on every item of clothing you own, in a vain attempt to raise your body temperature. The ground beneath you is so cold you might as well have made your bed on a polar ice cap. And despite the requisite roll mat you can feel every bump, every tree root, every missed tiny-spec-of-grit like some sort of torturous parable of The Princess and the Pea.

And the rain!

If it rains on a camping trip consider me packed and ready to go home. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to find yourself multi-day hiking in the wet you’ll know that you end up not only frozen to your core, but there’s absolutely no chance of having dry clothes the next day. You inevitably go to bed shivering in your sleeping bag with the onset of hypothermia. You end up with mud and grime all over the place. Everything reeks of damp and a general air of depression. You have to sleep with your head mere inches from your festering hiking boots, lest they become any more sodden during the night outside; the stench of trench foot seeping slowly through the flimsy sheet of nylon that separates you and that useless front ‘porch’. Which you have to leave open anyway to stop the tent filling with condensation.

You’ve gone to bed having eaten only a miserable excuse for a cereal bar because the rain was so heavy you couldn’t light your stove and cook that depressing packet of Maggie noodles, let alone a nice cup of warming tea. To add insult to injury you’re sleeping in a tent the same shape and relative dimensions of a coffin. And you’re literally mummified. Swaddled in a synthetic down sleeping bag like an Egyptian. At least the Egyptians buried their kings with countless treasures.

Just when you do begin to drop off you hear rustling, and then an aggressive ripping sound as some bastard rodent starts gnawing through your very expensive nylon coffin, and through your very expensive backpack, and into tomorrow’s Maggie noodles: Heaven forbid the bad weather continues and you can actually have a hot meal. If you’ve been sensible enough to stash your food hanging from a tree or in a campsite storage locker (little luxuries) said rodent will tear through your tent anyway and right through your camera dry bag before it realises it can’t eat cameras. Only then will it fuck off. But not before pissing on everything you own.

To top it all off you wake up and it’s still raining.

Why do people do it?

I’m currently in Torres Del Paine national park, the most well-known and well-traversed destination in Patagonia, and I’m looking out over a spectacular ice field densely packed into a wide valley as far as the eye can see. A huge cliff face marks its boundary, dropping suddenly and calving into the milky depths of Largo Grey. Sunlight cuts across the surface of this vast expanse, intermittently streaming between the dramatic granite spikes of the nearby John Gardner Pass. Low, warm light picks out the peaks and troughs of this forbidding—but incredibly beautiful—landscape. The ice isn’t pristine white but various shades of aquamarine and silver-grey, marbled with flecks and bands of obsidian-black grit; grindings of the mountains that it has slowly eroded and carried for hundreds of miles.

From my high vantage point I spot a tiny spec of colour approaching from the south, a single kayak paddling towards the cliff and throwing the sheer scale of my view into startling perspective. A second kayak follows shortly afterwards, a double this time, and the two boats line-up beside a hulking island of ice broken free from the field. The single kayak, clearly the guide, moves rapidly into position to capture the moment on camera. I raise my own camera and capture them capturing the moment. The combination of Largo Grey and Grey glacier laid out before me is spectacular.

I’ve hiked through dense forests, beautiful glades and over vertigo-inducing suspension bridges to get here. Along a never-less-than-dramatic valley with mountains towering over me on either side. It makes for an incredible trek and provides plenty of drama for landscape photography. Perhaps this is why people go camping?

But Torres del Paine is not only beautiful. It’s also a complete pain in the backside. It’s not the climate, which is often punishing and you’ll certainly need a weather-proof camera. Plus some serious rainwear; and even then the infamous Patagonian winds will be intent on driving every ounce of moisture through your Gortex, or beyond your weather sealing. And it’s not the extreme terrain, which can test the seasoned pro at the best of times but is undoubtedly worth all the effort.

It’s simply the cost and the logistics of it all, and the fact that it’s not at all simple.

Almost every campsite is owned by a different company, each with their own unique and largely useless booking systems. You pay to pitch your tent on a ‘site’ that costs far more than a very nice hostel with hot running water. Everything MUST be booked in advance so you have absolutely no flexibility if the weather changes. Or if you decide you can’t stand the campsite. Or if you’d quite like to spend more time in this beautiful place, please. The coach there is expensive, the boat from one side of the park to the other is expensive, the entrance fee is expensive, the supplies are expensive, hiring gear is expensive. Everything is expensive.

Okay, some things are understandably so in this part of the world. You are in a hostile wildness after all. But it’s also apparent that these prices are inflated because they can rather than because it’s a bit tricky out here. If you don’t want to camp (count me in) then you can pay the eye-watering prices of the refugios or book one of two upmarket hotels (count me out). If this was a one-off trip, a nice annual holiday for a couple of weeks, then those prices might be justifiable, perhaps even reasonable. But not for long-term travellers, one of the biggest audiences of Torres del Paine. Or when you consider that the refugios are essentially budget hostels; a cabin in the woods with dorm rooms and bunk beds: The same price per night as a very nice B&B in the real world. Add full board to the equation and your bill is significant.

It’s one thing to say it’s tricky to feed people in the wilderness or to get the supplies to these sites (disregarding the reliable network of roads and boats) but it’s quite another to serve bad food or provide festering facilities. Even the basics can still be brilliant (or even adequate) with the right people at the helm. I heard one lady proclaiming that she’ll never be able to eat scrambled eggs again.

The hotels are a relatively recent series of ventures catering for the luxury market; people who want to be surrounded by outstanding natural beauty, don’t want to do much hiking, but do quite fancy a nice boat trip to the glacier and a swift return to a warm lounge with a chilled gin and tonic. Which sounds quite nice, actually. At a price, of course. On the plus side, I suppose there’s not much in the way of additional expenses once you’re in the wilderness. 

I started my maddening adventure on the western trails of Torres del Paine National Park and headed east with the aim of ending on a high; the big finale, the granite towers themselves. The less said about that hike the better. It’s a story for another day. Needless to say my heart is firmly in the west. As was my eye for a photograph. The facilities are far superior, the views are staggering and it’s much, much quieter.

Having hiked up to Glacier Grey to take in that monstrous sheet of ice (think The Wall in Game of Thrones) and beyond to get a sense of the greater Southern Patagonian Ice Field, it was time to return to the tent. Fortunately there were plenty of distractions on the way back to delay the inevitable. One of the most striking diversions is descending to a small corner of Largo Grey that’s become an impromptu harbour for a variety of icebergs. Great glistening hunks of ice ebb and flow here, bobbing softly in the bay. The largest are a distinct shade of piercing blue, opaque and milky, surrounded by water studded with glittering jewels of crystal-clear ice.

A thundering crack, a deep rumble, and an angry wave surges from beneath one of the biggest bergs as it collapses under its own weight. Ripples radiate out in concentric circles from the point of impact. What’s left of the iceberg rolls over to reveal a glistening belly, wrinkled from the flow of water with glass-like clarity. The sun catches these ridges and curves in highlights, and with that great wall looming in the background it drifts slowly towards the open water: Torres Del Paine really is a landscape photographer’s paradise.

It’s camping hell. But it’s also landscape heaven.

Trip Notes

I packed light for this trip. One of the reasons I use mirrorless cameras is the dramatically reduced size and weight. I paired my FujiFilm X-T2 with the XF 35mm F2. Both are weather resistant. The 35mm was perfect for capturing the dramatic Patagonian landscapes. It’s wide enough to take in the bigger picture and long enough to capture all the details. It’s also incredibly small and weighs next to nothing. It’s a fantastic little lens. For wider shots, panoramic images, and HD video I took my iPhone 8 (also weather resistant). That’s it. Unless you have a private guide away from the trails, wildlife is limited to common sightings.

You’ll need a good four or five days to make it from one side of the park to the other along the world-renowned ‘W-Route’. You hike, you camp, you repeat. This is proper all-out, multi-day hiking. But don’t let that put you off. And despite the high prices it’s mostly worth the admission and all that hard work. Mostly. Even the boat journey across Largo Pehoé to reach Largo Grey offers some of the best scenery in the park; otherworldly formations that are amazing in the true sense of the word.

I stuck to noodles and instant soup for breakfast. They did the job of warming and filling me up and they weigh next to nothing. Which is essential when you have to carry all food in, and all rubbish out. My chorizo-spiced pasta tasted spectacular after a long, cold hike, despite such basic provisions. A hearty home-made trail mix is ideal for the hiking itself as you won’t want to stop and make lunch in the freezing cold (or driving rain). Besides, you’re not allowed to make fires of any kind away from designated areas. And while we’re on the subject of food, stick everything in zip-lock bags; pre-portioned for every meal or snack. It works wonders.

Remember, if you’re camping in Torres Del Paine you’ll be carrying everything. Your food, clothes, stove, gas, cooking utensils, basic toiletries, tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, wet weather gear… and any camera equipment on top. If the weather is anything but clear you won’t be swapping lenses in the rain. If it is clear, you won’t be swapping lenses when the gale-force winds are whipping up dust and grit at 100 kilometres an hour. Which is often.

Take lots of batteries. And whatever you do, make sure those batteries are fully charged. I thoroughly recommend the Ex-Pro batteries; cheap but reliable.

And for goodness’ sake, if you can’t stand camping (like me), pay the extra money for a proper bed in a warm refugio.

That gin and tonic sounds good, too.

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