Posted by Andrew Wei
This January, Sam Hartke ’13 and I decided to make the most of our last school break by studying abroad in Chile. After a week in Santiago studying Spanish — as well as a day and a half getting sunburned on the beach in Valparaíso (where we were joined by Adam Mendonça ’13) — we headed down to Torres del Paine National Park for a few days of hiking and camping.
Murphy’s Law must have a particularly powerful presence in Torres del Paine, because things started going wrong almost as soon as we got started. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: I’ve always believed that if things were always to go as planned, it would be a pretty boring world. But seriously, everything went wrong. And it was awesome.
#1: After camping out for our first night and waking up to a beautiful sunlit view of the mountains, we set out to tackle our first eight-hour hike — up to the Las Torres outlook and back — with high expectations. (I mean, look at these pictures!) Unfortunately for us, the weather kept worsening as we made our way up the valley. At several points, we were walking into horizontal sheets of rain and the wind was so strong we had to hide behind trees. By the time we got to the top, we could barely keep our eyes open. We took pictures anyway.
#2: On our way to our second campsite, we found ourselves on a ferry with no way to pay for tickets. For some reason, the pilot had let us on for free, and was now refusing to let us get off without paying — which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that we didn’t have enough Chilean cash on us to pay him. Eventually, we figured out that he would accept U.S. dollars; we’d need $100 to pay for all three of us, and between us we had . . . $98. So here’s the scene: we’re trying to do some quick math, the pilot is yelling at us because he’s on a tight timetable, there are about a hundred people waiting to get on the ferry for the return journey, and we need to count out the right mix of dollars and Chilean pesos to get us off the ferry and make sure we have enough to get back home. Whew. The important thing is that we eventually paid the pilot: he was happy, and we were happy because we were finally allowed off.
#3: The wind at the second campsite was incredible. We could barely stand. After scouting around the campsite for a few minutes, we decided to try erecting our tent on the lee side of a small hill. While we did get it set up (after picking up the whole thing and moving it across the campsite to a less windy spot), the tent poles kept bending in the wind and the fabric was billowing like a sail. It took both me and Adam just to keep the tent from flying away while Sam secured it to the ground. We were in the middle of this process when there was a loud crack and the top of our tent started caving in at a weird angle. Our trusty tent — never really designed for this kind of weather — was broken. Since we didn’t have the means to repair it out in the elements, the only other option was to send Sam (who spoke the best Spanish) in to the camp lodge to negotiate with the park staff while Adam and I held down the tent. In the end, they pulled through for us and let us rent an emergency windproof tent for the night.
#4: Our hike the next day went (unexpectedly) smoothly, and by the time we were ready to take the last ferry of the day back across the lake, things seemed to be going our way — until the park service abruptly announced that they’d instituted a new passenger limit1 and the last thirty or so people in line wouldn’t be able to board. Of course, that included us. Faced with the prospect of being left in the park a night longer than we’d planned for, we immediately started talking with the camp staff and other stranded hikers to try to get the ferry to come back for us. There were a lot of angry people. Negotiations went on for hours. In the meantime, we raided the camp store and bought $15 of ramen (the only real food they had other than cookies) for dinner. The ferry came back for us as the sun was setting and, miraculously, the wind was at our back the whole way. After three long days of hiking and camping, we were treated to an awe-inspiring view of the full mountain range over the lake with sunset on one side and moonrise on the other. We’d made a couple friends during the long wait for the ferry, and not one person regretted missing the initial ferry. We got out of the park and back to our hostel past midnight: exhausted, sleepy, but quietly satisfied with that final moonlit view of the park. Sometimes the timing just works out perfectly.
I’ve left out a lot of things,2 and each of these could be a full post in themselves. It doesn’t need to be said that Torres del Paine was beautiful, and breathtakingly so. Over the three days we were in the park, we saw mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, and stood atop dozens of spectacular overlooks. We cooked meals over camp stoves and listened to the rain falling gently on our tent at night.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that to me, studying abroad is as much about the misadventure as it is about the adventure. I love making plans, but paradoxically, I also get a bit too excited when they start falling apart. It helps to not panic. It helps to have friends who know what they’re doing. Things usually turn out okay, one way or the other, and working your way out of a tough situation is always a great feeling. You might discover in the process that you’re more resilient than you give yourself credit for.
And if not, at the very least, you get to come back to the States with a great story.
: For very legitimate safety reasons! The only problem was that there wasn’t enough capacity to get everyone back home.
: The fire in the cooking lodge. The park rangers’ weather report: “Watch out for flying rocks.” Stories for another time, maybe.