torres del paine national park in three parts: french valley

The “W” trek in Torres del Paine National Park in the Chilean Patagonian region, dangling at the bottom of the world, has long been a personal challenge and dream of mine.

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After leaving my program in Vina del Mar, I found myself looking out of the plane window at this landscape for the first time and with tears in my eyes.  I had made it.  I was here.  I was going to do the “W”.

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I signed up with Cascada Expeditions, a tour company that organizes 5 day programs to hike the “W” and stay at ecocamp,  a community of low-impact luxury domes perched on a hill at the base of the iconic granite towers that identify the park.

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After a painless airport pickup and drive from Punta Arenas through Puerto Natales and into the National Park, I saw my first glimpses of the majesty that had both graced and haunted my dreams for over a year.  This was the moment I had worked towards, trained towards, saved my pennies for…and it was more than I had imagined.

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Just the sheer size of Patagonia astonishes me. The beauty is unreal, the colors dazzling and confusing and more vibrant than one would expect in such a desolate and challenging place.  Incredibly flat at times and soaring up into snow covered and glacier ridden peaks, the land is untameable and wild.  I was a visitor like many others, but I was also a worshiper at the altar of nature.  This is the true epicenter.

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Our first day began with a catamaran sail across Lago Pehoe to the Refugio Paine Grande, or the uber comfortable lodges that the park has scattered around on private land that boast hot meals, dorm beds and most importantly, showers and a cold beer at the end of the day.

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Our destination was the French Valley and the Britanica Overlook.  Hiking alongside lake after lake, through burnt down forests of beech trees that only populate this region of the world due to the separating of the Antarctic plates, past fields of bright purple wild peas, fire bushes that glow red as if Moses was present and crossing streams running clear with glacier fed water, we made it the 25 km round trip with no problems physical or meteorological.

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To see the beauty of Patagonia is to look in the face of the origin of life.  There, at the end of the stream, soaring up into the cloudy sky, disappearing into the gray mass hanging low and heavy with snow, was a rock face littered with hanging glaciers.  This apex of the French Valley is gloriously massive, dazzlingly blue, dusty with powdered sugar and entirely worth it.  Crossing the final bridge I was brought to tears, having to reason with myself small position that I occupy in this world.

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Our guide, Xabi, pointed out natural springs with water so pure and so clean that we only very nearly stopped short of opening our mouths to the pristine stream.  The sounds of wilderness and peace were only interrupted when a large block of ice fell of the face of the hanging glaciers with a crack and a boom and a cloud of powder

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We ended the first day of trekking at the Refugio and powered up for day 2…

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