A 3 day hike in beautiful but chilly Chile: Torres del Paine National Park
15.02.2012 - 17.02.2012
We probably could have stayed in Ushuaia for a week or more but mindful we needed to make some headway north (at some point) we jumped on a 15 hour bus: destination Puerte Natales. One border crossing into chilly Chile and an unexpected look around Porta Arenas and we had arrived at our destination, right on schedule but very late at night. One night at a rather ‘ho hum’ hostel made us ever so eager to find somewhere better the next day so we checked out of one rather dirty unpleasant hostel and into one very nice awesome hostel. Very big plug for Hospedaje Nancy here!
The question of the day was “to do the W or not”? We were very much in two minds. A one day walk to the famous Torres lookout point vs. the full 4 day expedition. Or something in-between? Or something even more ambitious? What to do, what to do? Decisions, decisions! After a bit of research on the internet, a trip to the information centre for maps and a discussion over coffee later we had made our decision.
3 days, 2 nights. Our day of research, decision making and later supply buying was one of the coldest days EVER. Think arctic wind and frostbite. After months in Africa sweating and wearing jandles and shorts here we were wearing long trousers, proper shoes, puffer jackets and beanies. It was a real pain lugging all that warm weather gear around for 4 months in 30 degree sunshine but now we are getting good use out of every layer! So the idea of getting into a tent if it was going to be that cold was totally out of the question – we’re meant to be enjoying this holiday after all. Even though it was ridiculously expensive we “upgraded” and booked proper beds in camp refugios complete with mattresses and pillows. This would also save us (well Mike) from carrying a heavy tent and both sleeping bags etc. To cut the cost down a fraction we therefore decided to do all our own cooking so after renting the gas thing and a few pots and bowls we headed to the supermarket to get some camp food. This proved not to be as easy as we first thought. Back at home (NZ) camp food can be purchased in every outdoors store (or does my memory fail me?). Freeze dried meatballs with rice or freeze dried sausage curry with rice. You know the ones I mean – the sachets that only require boiling water to be poured in and hey presto ‘bon apetite’? Well anyway nothing even remotely like that was possible so we got a collection of soup, noodle, risotto and pasta packets. And some tuna and salami, chocolate, biscuits, ham and cheese rolls, bananas and nuts. How long were we going for again?
Shopping done, then it was time to pack the bags. We squeezed only what was absolutely necessary into my big back-pack (for Mike to carry) and Mike’s small day-pack (for me to carry). Final weigh in was about 13kg and 7kgs respectively so not too bad really.
FYI. The W trail is called the W because its shape resembles the letter, except it’s more like a lower case w with rounded edges. Going up to the points requires some backtracking back down the same paths. We walked from right to left. A refugio is essentially a hostel.
I will also just explain our reasoning for doing a 3 day trip instead of all other possibilities (1 day/2 days/4 days/9 days etc): A few weeks ago some numpty started cooking in a very inappropriate place and who knows what really happened but the result was a bush fire with the most dreadful consequences. All of the left hand side of the W is destroyed as well as a sizable chuck of park further south. The park rangers told us quite plainly that if the wind is blowing (and it is very windy in the western part of the Torre Del Paine Park), then your eyes, nose and mouth MUST be covered to protect against ash. No thank you – so that’s why we didn’t do the 4th day. We saw some of the effects of the fire at the very end of our 3rd day but I’m getting way ahead of myself. Blessedly the rest of the W is completely unaffected and totally magnificent; which is why we wanted to do more than 1 day. As for the full 9 day option - that would definitely require a tent so was quickly dismissed as indeed WAY too ambitious.
We got picked up from our hostel at 7.30am for the 2 hour drive into the park. The views out of the window (when we weren’t snoozing) were magnificent so we knew we were in for some pretty good sights once actually in the park. At one point there was even a rainbow. Park entrance fees paid, a final look at the map, and a few last minute questions answered by the park ranger and we were ready to go. Mike had a strange feeling that we had forgotten something! Shit balls! I could only hope it wasn’t something really vital, like clean undies or the camera battery.
Right so there’s a free shuttle to get you from the main gate area to the start of the trails but we (well mostly Mike) decided to flag that and walk the distance instead. A mere 7.5kms or 1.5hrs additional walking. The back-pack started off feeling light and manageable, maybe even comfortable. That nice feeling lasted for about 20 minutes before back ache, shoulder strain and neck pain set in – it was going to be a long 3 days! Only kidding! Having to get the raincoat out of the bag was no laughing matter though as the clouds and mist settled in but thankfully the drizzle was short lived and not too heavy.
The day’s objective was the ‘base de las torres’ viewpoint at the top of the right hand stalk of the W. We were pleased the rain had stopped but we still had all our fingers and toes crossed for blue sky and sunshine. Conditions can change quickly in the park, and as we were going to spend all afternoon hiking uphill to this viewpoint we needed/wanted the cloud to clear off long enough to actually see something once there. Namely the ‘torres’ or towers in English. We would have to walk straight past our refugio for the night: ‘Campamento Chileno’ so we had the brain wave of an idea to leave the big bag at camp and just take up the smaller bag with water and snacks etc. Mike could carry that leaving me with only the camera (three guesses for whose idea that was). But first we had to get to Chileno which was nothing short of a mission – 2 more hours of mostly uphill slog. Stopping often on the pretence of enjoying the view and/or taking photographs was fooling no one. Reassuringly every single other person on the track found it just as tough going as we did. The size of some people’s backpacks was incredible. We met a French guy ‘Clem’ at our hostel in Puerto Natales who planned on spending 9 days in the park – with 9 days’ worth of food he could barely lift his bag. Good luck to him!
When we reached Chileno camp we had a quick scout round the refugio to locate our bunk beds. They stack them 3 high but luckily we were on the bottom and middle bunks so no mountaineering for us then to get into bed. After a quick bit of lunch and a prayer or two for the clouds to clear up we were off on the next stage. 1.5 hours to the base of the tower, then another 1 hour to the view point. I’m pleased to say we made it in less time than predicted (might have something to do with not having heavy bags on our backs). Unfortunately by the time we made it to the top, not only had the cloud not disappeared for us but was in fact even worse than when we had started out. The view was still incredible but the very tops of the towers were shrouded in mist. It definitely added a somewhat mystical and dramatic element to the scene but I think we would have much preferred brilliant sunshine and a perfect view. Who wouldn’t but that’s Mother Nature for you. The wind started to pick and instead of blowing the cloud away just made more roll on over the tops and down towards the lagoon – time to make a hasty retreat before we got too cold.
7.5 hours of walking on the first day was not to be sniffed at, nor was the steaming hot shower and fluffy sleeping bags we climbed into afterwards. Dinner was a low key affair having decided not to bother with the gas thing until lunch the next day. Just before bed time some of our room mates were discussing the pros and cons of heading back up to the torres viewpoint for sunrise but as this involved getting out of bed at 4.15am, although tempting, wasn’t for us.
We realised at breakfast the next morning what we had forgotten to pack. Powdered milk! Nothing too vital and luckily we had two cartoons of pre-made milo. FYI: muesli with milo is quite good.
Our second day in the park was always going to be our “easy” day – a mere 4.5 hour walk across the bottom right section of the W. As that was only going to take half the day we decided to give the torres viewpoint another chance in the morning. Why not - the day seemed brighter than the previous one, the sun was shining and there was even some patchy blue sky around. From camp you can just see the torres in the distance so we were making this decision on what we thought was pretty sound reasoning. Unfortunately for us by the time we reached the torres this time, not only was the mist at the top of the towers worse than the previous afternoon, but it had started to snow as well. We stayed only for the time it took to take 3 pictures and acknowledge that the weather wasn’t going to change any time soon. About 2 minutes. We made an even more hasty retreat than the previous afternoon hampered by flying snowflakes to the face. They hurt quite a bit actually.
Then it was time to get the gas cooker out and whip up a delicious cheese and salami risotto for lunch and a nice steaming mug of black coffee (as we had forgotten the milk powder remember).
The afternoon was spent first going down what we had slogged up the previous day, and then over mostly flat land or gently rolling land to our second camp site. We walked past small lakes on one side and the almighty torres mountain range on the other. It was sunshine and blue sky the whole way! Typical! Entertaining us on this part of the trip were two Swiss French chaps, Patrick and Olivier, both of whom were quite funny. (Patrick we had met with Clem at our hostel in Puerto Natales). Added to this we were further entertained by a couple of other young trekkers who were obviously struggling, not really enjoying themselves and carrying way too stuff. Between them they had a very mysterious heavy looking briefcase. Too big to fit in either of their back packs they were carrying it by hand, by turns sharing the burden. Multiple suggestions were put forth: a weapon, a star gazing telescope or a defibrillator were some. Olivier tried to ask them but got a cagey and non-conclusive reply. His suggestion of a petanque set won the day. We never did find out what it was. Very strange indeed.
We were too busy at camp that night to do any more investigating; not only did we have dinner to cook, but lunch for the next day also. Dinner consisted of vegetable and salami curry rice. Lunch being a tuna and mixed bean pasta salad (something that had gone down a treat several times in Africa). Not a quick process when you only have one small gas burner thing. We also had to sort our dorm beds out; the refugio having booked 7 people into a 6 bed dorm and us being the last to arrive. All worked out in the end, although we were in a semi-permanent “tent” structure outside of the main refugio which was unfortunately VERY cold. We were supplied with a nice duvet and pillow but they were inadequate for the overnight temperatures. I slept in two jumpers and my puffer jacket and was still cold; Mike went to bed with no socks on and ended up wrapping his feet in his fleece and was also cold. So our “easy” day did turn into rather a “busy” day. 8 hours of walking, 1 ½ hours of cooking and no sleep.
We always knew that day 3 would be both the most enduring and the most rewarding. 10 hours of walking (a lot of which would be uphill) but the objective being the Frances Valley (a place we had heard nothing but great things about). And time would be critical; we had a boat to catch in the afternoon to make our transfer back to Puerto Natales. To make sure we reached the final viewpoint with some time to spare and to make sure we wouldn’t have to leg it to catch that boat we set out before dawn. One more excellent bowl of milo and muesli, eaten in the dark, and we were off. All the camp was quiet, not another soul was up yet. Finding out where the path was the day before might have been an excellent idea but it only took one wrong turn and a small amount of backtracking to get it right. Looking back towards camp as we headed off into the darkness and seeing the sun rise over the mountains was worth the early start. The head torches and puffer jackets were only worn for about half an hour before the sun’s appearance made both un-necessary. The first part of the day was nice and easy with mostly flat walking and we didn’t cross paths with anybody coming the other way until we were almost at the next camp-site (about 2 hours). People hiking in Patagonia are very friendly and very polite. No-one goes past without saying “hola” or perhaps a “hola, que tal?” That morning I was glad there was no-one to greet – it was way too early and I didn’t have the energy. Lol.
Once again we dumped the big bag at the next camp site before embarking on the hike up the Frances valley. This was the “grand finale”, the main event. The view at the end made us wish we had mastered the panoramic setting on the camera – maybe it have done it justice. Mountains, glaciers, blue sky, trees, sheer rock faces – this view had it all! We were surprised how quickly we had made it up to the final viewpoint, over an hour quicker than predicted. Out came our tuna pasta salad (to a few envious glances from other trekkers to be sure) and some time to enjoy the view and take the obligatory self-portrait/posed picture.
Getting back down was easy enough, albeit a bit tough on the knee joints. The final stage, 2.5 hours up and over one more mountain to the boat just about took everything I had left to give. The final half an hour seemed to take FOREVER but we made it in good time: even had time for 40 winks in the sun before the boat turned up.
I think the last part seemed to take longer because gone were the lush green trees, gone were the dense shrubs and gone was the perfect park. The little bit of fire damage we saw coming into the western most part of the W was pretty bad. I’m glad we didn’t venture too far around. It was spooky and a little bit depressing to see nothing but black charcoal tree stumps everywhere. Mike likened it to a ‘Tim Burton’ film, Sleepy Hollow perhaps? I wish them well for the restoration and re-planting project – it will take a lot of time and money but hopefully the park can be restored to its former glory soon. We’ve since heard that the government of the offending person has pledged monitory assistance. A small consolation to the Chilean government I’m sure as it’s the second time this has happened, the first fire being in 2005. (No – it definitely wasn’t a New Zealander, somewhere very far from home in fact).
All in all 3 very awesome days. We were extremely tired, slightly battered by the elements, and had a ton of food left, but we had done the W (or almost all the W). A great sense of achievement was rewarded by a large pat on the back, and an even larger cerveza. If I’m honest I would have to say the hiking was easier than expected and the views better than expected. Finding out our bus out of Puerto Natales left at 6.30pm instead of 8am was like sweet sweet music to the ears.
We may have climbed a mountain or two but that was nothing compared to the mountain of washing we handed in to the Laundromat the next day. Carrying our full back packs to the bus stop in the afternoon was nothing short of painful though. :-)
Next stop: El Calefate and the famous glacier: Perito Moreno.
Hasta luego, Keely