This past week we visited Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, near the southern tip of the Andes about 250 miles north of Cape Horn. Located on the 51st parallel–about as far south of the equator as Quebec City is north of it–the park is famously windy, and the weather can be sunny, rainy, or snowy any day of the year, or even in a single day. Although we headed to the southern hemisphere in February to chase the summer (February is equivalent to August in North America), we knew that in Torres we could expect daily high temperatures of no more than 50 degrees and nighttime lows near freezing. But we also came to take advantage of the 16-hour days that allow time to see and do so much.
The park is named for the high tower-like peaks (“torres” in Spanish) that seem to rise out of blue-green glacial lakes (“Paine,” pronounce pie-nay, is an old indigenous word for the color blue). There are two main long distance hikes in the park. The “W” climbs in and out of the peaks and glaciers via a 44 mile trail shaped roughly like the letter W. The 71-mile “O” circles the high peaks and glaciers. Visitors have a choice of accommodations, from high-end hotels to bunk-room refugios (lodges) to tent camping. We decided to hike the “W” trail over four days and stay in tents located adjacent to the refugios where we could take meals and a hot shower.
We arrived at “Camping Central” in a cold rain late in the afternoon of February 7 after a long journey by plane and bus from Buenos Aires. Fortunately, though we would be sleeping in a tent, we could use the common area of the refugio, which was warm and inviting. We met fellow hikers from Chile, Argentina, the United States, and Europe. And we hoped for better weather the next day when we would don our backpacks and begin to hike.
The next morning was damp and overcast, but it was still beautiful, and we were excited to start our trek. The route ascends gently for a few miles to Refugio Chileno where we could leave our packs and climb unencumbered for two more hours to a small glacial lake at the base of the Torres. By the time we reached Chileno it was cold and drizzling and even more overcast. We had little hope that our climb to the lake would reward us with a view of the Torres, but we had come to hike, so that’s what we did.
A light snow was falling as we reached the lake. We took some pictures of the turquoise water with a high cliff rising up on one side and a dusting of snow on the boulders. After about half an hour we decided to leave. Then we noticed that it was getting a bit brighter, and some blue sky started appearing here and there. The snow stopped, so we decided to stay a bit longer. We’re so glad we did. The clouds gradually thinned and lifted, and we noticed a high stone cliff face on the left side of the lake that hadn’t been visible a few minutes earlier. Little by little, stone towers appeared as the sky cleared around them. Now all we hikers were talking excitedly, pointing, and posing for pictures. The beautiful scene lasted only about 30 minutes, and then the clouds blew back in. It seemed just a bit miraculous that the day could clarify like that, and so suddenly and briefly. We felt grateful.
My dad died four weeks ago. It wasn’t a surprise. He was 88 years old, had been suffering with dementia for the last few years, and had a very weak heart. When I visited just before Christmas, he seemed ready to go. As Lorrie and I left my parents’ home, Dad stood up, although he was very weak. He knew we were leaving. He gave us each a big hug and kiss and said goodbye.
Long hikes afford time for reflection, and I found myself thinking a lot about my dad as we hiked in Torres del Paine. He was a sweet, gentle soul.
I don’t really know as much as I’d like about what the early years were like for my dad. He was the youngest of six children of immigrant parents, and his family squeezed into an apartment above their small store in New Haven, Connecticut. My mother Heide and father Saul started dating in 1947, when she was 15 and he was 17. They married a few years later in 1951 and soon began a family (I’m number three of five kids.) Dad landed a job at IBM, and that opened his world considerably. He worked on projects around the United States, and in 1964 he accepted a nine-month assignment in England. Dad was 35 then, and I think it was the first time he left the United States other than to see the Canadian side of Niagara Falls
My parents loved the adventure of living in England and traveling in Europe. Over the next fifty years they travelled extensively, making it to every continent, including Antarctica! Both loved to see and learn about new places, experience nature, and sample the local food. They visited Lorrie and me in the rural Paraguayan village where we were Peace Corps volunteers in the mid-1980s. Dad was 56 then, the same age as I am now. With its simple houses, no electricity or running water, and animals wandering freely through the muddy streets, Dad imagined that our village was probably very much like the place in Belorus where his mother was born before her family left for the United States.
My mom and dad weren’t hikers, so they wouldn’t have done the hikes we did in Torres del Paine, but I found myself imagining my dad with me at each stunning overlook. He was with me powerfully as we climbed on our third day to Británico overlook, the towers circling us and a deep blue sky overhead. I aim to hold a strong, vibrant, active image of him, for that was my dad’s character for most of his life. My dad’s decline these last few years was painful to witness and the stress has inevitably taken a toll on my mom too. She’s grieving now, but I know she has an ample stock of strong happy memories from their 70 years together.
We camped near Refugio Paine Grande on our last night in the park. About 3:30am, I felt nature’s call, and I dreaded getting out of our tent and into the cold night air. But as I emerged into the clear dark night, I could see millions of stars across the sky. We had many starry nights like that in rural Paraguay, and I remember my parents’ delight at the sight. I’ve not seen anything like it since, even in the dark sky parks on our trip last year in the western United States, where we too often coincided with a full moon that overpowered the stars.
If there’s any solace in my dad’s passing, perhaps it’s being able to imagine him with me in any place and moment since he now has no physical space of his own. That’s a comforting thought for me, and I hope my mom can find similar solace, for I can only imagine her grief of separation after 70 years together. I love you, Mom. Thanks to both of you for all that you’ve given me, including your spirit of adventure!
We’ll share a second blog with additional information about Torres del Paine and lessons learned to help you visit this beautiful place in the future. I’m still working on inserting pics into these blogs working on an old iPad. Check out the picture gallery on our website for additional photos of Torres del Paine.