A little more than a mile into my trek in Chilean Patagonia, I dropped my 25-pound pack and tent next to a boulder halfway up a dusty hill and thought about quitting.

A city girl with zero backpacking experience, I was totally out of my element among throngs of more experienced hikers who were visibly elated to be in one of the most beautiful areas of the world. I, on the other hand, had used my tent only once before this trip, mostly to make sure it didn’t leak.

In that moment of frustration, I could not remember how I managed to talk myself into flying thousands of miles away from the comfort of my own bed to hike more than 50 miles in five days.

By myself.

 A rope bridge leads into Camp Italiano, one of the free campsites run by Chile’s National Forest Corp. Campers drink out of this river during their stay.
Bethany Ao / Staff
A rope bridge leads into Camp Italiano, one of the free campsites run by Chile’s National Forest Corp. Campers drink out of this river during their stay.

I’ve always loved a good challenge, but this one suddenly seemed insurmountable.

When I began considering hiking in Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile last year, it was mostly out of curiosity. My friends and family know that outdoorsy activities are not on my short list of enjoyable activities. I used to nap in the backseat of the family car as my parents and brother hiked the mountains of North Carolina.

Even for experienced hikers, conquering the trails in Torres del Paine is no easy task, with plenty of uphill slogs and difficult downhill sections on loose rocks. (The last 800 meters to the Torres, the three granite massifs that define the park, is a nearly vertical rock scramble.)

Clouds shroud the three Towers of the Torres del Paine National Park at Mirador Britanico — British Lookout — as Bethany Ao sits at the glacial lagoon there. Hiking there was the hardest part of her trip — nearly six hours there and back from the campsite.
Bethany Ao / Staff
Clouds shroud the three Towers of the Torres del Paine National Park at Mirador Britanico — British Lookout — as Bethany Ao sits at the glacial lagoon there. Hiking there was the hardest part of her trip — nearly six hours there and back from the campsite.

It’s also not easy to get to — most hikers fly into Santiago before making the journey to Punta Arenas, the Chilean town from where Antarctica expeditions are launched. Then they have to take a bus for three hours to Puerto Natales, the sleepy gateway town to the park. From there, you ride another bus for 70 miles to the actual park entrance. And then, if you chose to hike west to east, as I did, you take a catamaran that deposits you at the trail head.

You’re on your own after that — if you injure yourself or get lost, there’s no search-and-rescue team coming for you. (The park is too vast for that, and a handful of hikers disappear from the trail every year.) Most people choose to hike the “W,” which takes four nights and five days.

Despite the challenging nature of this trip, I could not get the idea of seeing the strikingly blue glacial lakes and snow-covered mountain peaks of Patagonia out of my head. So I booked a flight, scoured travel blogs for tips, and started ordering blister relief and hiking poles through Amazon. My friends jokingly told me to carry a GPS tracker with me. Despite all my preparations, I found myself having anxiety dreams about the trip weeks before leaving.

And now here I was, sweaty and exhausted, already considering giving up. … Maybe everyone was right. Maybe I really wasn’t cut out for this. But what if I just walked for 10 more minutes? I think I could do that.

To reach the beginning of the "W" trail, a catamaran takes hikers across Pehoé Lake. The lakes in Torres del Paine are so blue because there silt from the glaciers that created them stays suspended in the water for a long time.
Bethany Ao / Staff
To reach the beginning of the "W" trail, a catamaran takes hikers across Pehoé Lake. The lakes in Torres del Paine are so blue because there silt from the glaciers that created them stays suspended in the water for a long time.

I picked up my pack and tent, readjusted my shoulder straps, and rounded the corner, only to happen upon a serene lake, so blue it made my eyes hurt, surrounded by a forest. The Patagonian peaks I had traveled so far to see stretched into the sky, creating jagged, rocky outlines among the clouds.

In that moment, I decided that quitting was not an option.

Over the next few days, I battled winds that nearly knocked me off my feet and that brought stinging tears to my eyes. I swatted at flies that would not stop buzzing near my face no matter how fast I hiked. I sunburned my nose despite applying sunscreen every 30 minutes. I got lost on a trail on my third day and had to hike an extra kilometer on ankle-breaking rocks near a dried-up riverbed.

My shoulders, legs, and back were constantly sore. I woke up shivering in my sleeping bag almost every night, and I don’t think I could eat another Clif bar again in this lifetime. I hiked my last day on a sprained knee, which was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done.

But I also drank from rivers and streams fed directly by glaciers in the park. I watched an avalanche across a valley on an early morning when I was hiking by myself, the roar of snow and ice falling reaching my ears seconds later. I crossed suspension bridges, ate lunches next to sapphire-colored lakes, soothed aching toes in icy water, and woke up every morning to the sounds of birds chirping.

Bethany Ao's tent at Camp Grey after the first day of hiking. "I figured out how to set up my tent like a pro and came to appreciate the small, cozy space. I became friends with people from all over the world hiking the same trail — we would chat about our favorite parts of the day while setting up camp, stretch our cramped muscles, and play cards while watching the sun set."
Bethany Ao / Staff
Bethany Ao's tent at Camp Grey after the first day of hiking. "I figured out how to set up my tent like a pro and came to appreciate the small, cozy space. I became friends with people from all over the world hiking the same trail — we would chat about our favorite parts of the day while setting up camp, stretch our cramped muscles, and play cards while watching the sun set."

I figured out how to set up my tent like a pro and came to appreciate the small, cozy space. I became friends with people from all over the world hiking the same trail — we would chat about our favorite parts of the day while setting up camp, stretch our cramped muscles, and play cards while watching the sunset.

Every night, I fell asleep with a sense of accomplishment.

This must be why people love backpacking. There is such a sense of pride that comes with carrying everything you need on your back for days at a time and relying on yourself.

Before long, I was in love with backpacking. I loved the mental strength it demanded and how I didn’t have to worry about anything besides getting myself from one campsite to another every day. I loved being resourceful in solving problems I encountered, like using rocks to weigh down my tent stakes on a windy night or drying my towel using a carabiner that I hung above my sleeping bag. I loved that everyone I met was completely engaged in this experience as well. There were no distractions from the outside world, like social media or text messages.

Halfway through the trip, I turned 24. That morning, I sat on a cluster of rocks after three hours of hiking through a forest and gazed at the mountains that surrounded me. It was nearly silent, with just the occasional faraway rumble of an avalanche. In that moment, I felt immensely proud of myself for taking a huge leap out of my comfort zone and for the self-reliance I had demonstrated over the previous few days. I realized to my surprise that I had proved to myself that I really could do anything I wanted to, so long as I showed the same determination I had when tackling this hike.

That was the best birthday present I could have possibly asked for.

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