Torres del Paine in all its glory and ferocity

Our hopes for hiking the “O” circuit in Torres del Paine were immediately dashed upon arrival at the park entrance when a park ranger informed us that the north west trail near the infamous Gordon Pass was covered in knee-deep snow and another blizzard was heading that way in just three days – exactly the time we would be reaching that part of the trail.  Reluctantly we adjusted our plans and decided to hike the “W” trail instead which was easily done in six days.  We had sufficient supplies for eight days of trekking, so we could take our time and enjoy ourselves.  In the end, we covered a little more than half the “W” in 5 days/4 nights.

Map of the trail:  Red line represents the “W”.
The circuit, also known as the “O”, includes the red and grey lines.

We arrived in the park around noon and set out shortly thereafter towards Campemento Torres which was only 1.5 hours away according to our map; this was the right arm of the “W” in the map above.  Our spirits were high in spite of our heavy packs but as the trail to Camp Torres steepened, my body resisted heartily.  My hips screamed in pain as we climbed the difficult trail.  Chris grumbled behind me – this was going to be a long eight days.  At least the weather was great – sunny with some clouds, a little bit of wind, and good hiking temperatures, around 18C.  Three hours later we arrived at the free camp, a lovely spot nestled in the trees about a 30 minute trek from the infamous “Towers”.  We quickly learned the estimated times on our map did not correspond with our hiking pace, not even close.

After setting up our little tent, and having lunch, we decided to trek up to the “Towers” while the weather was good.  The steep climb, probably the hardest on the entire trail, was a lot easier without our packs on our backs.  We were rewarded at the top with good visibility and a clear view of the “Towers”.   The wind had picked up when we were at the top and I was happy to have brought my bright yellow Quark expedition shell from our Antarctica cruise.  I nestled in amongst some boulders for protection and enjoyed the scenery for a while.

The “Towers” in Torres del Paine

That night, the wind howled through the trees above us, but we were well protected in the forest and our tent held up well.  It must have dipped to a few degrees above zero during the night, and I was cold in my sleeping bag in the early morning hours.  My parka doubled up as blanket over my lower extremities with my feet tucked into the hood, and my fleece kept my upper torso toasty.

We had a long day of trekking ahead of us on Day 2: 1.5 hrs back down the way we had come, and then 4 hrs west to the next camp, at Refugio Cuernos.  The winds were stronger as we began our trek down the mountain side, causing us to stop more than once to let the winds abate rather than risk being blown off the moutain side.

As we veered west, the terrain changed to an easier, hilly path that was quite enjoyable.  Our muscles were still resisting and our packs still felt heavy but I was comforted with the knowledge that our packs would lighten as we consumed food each day; we just had to resist the urge to hasten the process by eating more than the rations allotted for the day.

Along the trail we played “cat and mouse” with a few other younger couples who were heading in the same direction.  A camaraderie formed amongst us so that by the time we reached our first daunting river crossing, we worked together to figure out the best way to cross it. I’m not talking small streams that you cross in a couple of steps.  These were at least 20 feet across, with fast moving water rushing down with no clear way to navigate across.  For one such river, Chris and I changed into our hiking sandals, rolled our pants past our knees, and carefully walked through the frigid, ankle-deep glacier water.  We did quite well until the last river crossing.  After watching several people, Chris included, cautiously walk across large rocks, I followed suit.  At the last rock, a combination of legs that were too short and a strong, untimely gust of wind threw me off balance so that I missed the rock ahead and fell forward face first.  Luckily, I had my walking poles to brace my fall, leaning most of my weight into my left pole and angling my body so that I landed on my stomach on the large rock ahead, with both the camera bag which dangled from my hip and my back pack safely out of the water.  The only wounds incurred were my pride and my left walking pole that snapped in two under the force of the fall.  I counted myself lucky as it could have been a much worse outcome.

I was in good spirits all day, in spite of the heavy pack and the river fall.  The scenery was beautiful in every direction, the trail was manageable, and the weather was beautiful – sunny, around 18C, still windy but not like the early morning gusts on the mountain side.  But when we reached a sign that indicated we were only half way to the camp when I thought we were almost there, I hit a low, feeling like it was never going to end.  And then it got worse, much worse.

Out of nowhere, the winds picked up.  Before we knew it, we were dealing with gale force gusts of wind that literally knocked you off your feet.  And these gusts were unpredictable, coming at you suddenly, from any direction.  At this point, the trail hugged the side of a mountain, with a steep drop off  to the lake hundreds of feet below.  We started to recognize when a gust was coming – we could see the wind whipping up the waves in the lake below, next we heard the howl and then the wind would hit with a vengeance, soaking us with the mist from the lake.  We were exposed on this part of the trail and there was no where to seek shelter so we would all crouch low on the trail, sometimes on our stomachs and grab anything within our reach, tree roots or strong branches, hanging on literally for dear life so as not to be blown off the trail.  One guy ahead of us, was lifted off his feet and blown ten feet off the trail, luckily into some bushes and not down the side of a cliff.  Chris got thrown roughly against some rocks, bruising his arm, leg and a couple of ribs.  His camera got pretty banged up too.  It was frightening and slow going as we struggled against this wind for about three hours.  This was our first taste of the notorious Patagonia winds.

We arrived at Refugio Cuernos at around 4:30 pm, completely exhausted.  Luckily we found one of the last camp sites and somehow managed to set up our tent under these ferocious winds.  Tents were snapping in two, and blowing away all around us.  We weighted our tent down with six large boulders – as heavy as we could carry – inside the tent.  We piled boulders all round the tent pegs on the outside. We then huddled inside our tent wondering what the night would bring.  We were grateful for the military dinners provided to us by our B&B hosts, a  surprisingly tasty beef stew.  It was like magic watching the pouches heat up in a special plastic bag to which we had added a few tablespoons of cold water.  We would have gone hungry that night if we didn’t have these emergency provisions.  Our tent swooshed and swooned as the wind howled and swirled around us but it stayed in one piece and kept us dry even though it rained hard all night.

Others were not so lucky.  At around midnight, as we made our way to the bathroom, we were shocked to find about 30 people huddled next to the Refugio exposed to the elements; either their tents had collapsed, blown away, or there were simply no more sites available upon which to pitch a tent.  We were angered that the Refugio refused to allow this overflow into the building – there was plenty of space to make temporary beds on the dining room floor yet these unfortunate souls were locked out and had no option but to endure the night outdoors.

Since the next open camp site was more than 8 hours away, we decided to stay at Refugio Cuernos for two nights so that we could spend a day hiking into the French Valley (the middle arm of the “W”), reputed to be one of the prettiest spots in the park.  Amazingly, Day 3 was completely still, the lake as flat as a pancake, not even a ripple on the lake that had deluged us just the day before.  And it was stinking hot and humid. What crazy Patagonian weather. It took us over 2 hours to get to the French Valley even without our packs, and then we headed up the valley, but we didn’t get too far; I think we were still quite fatigued from the previous day.  During this hike, we learned that Campemento Italiano, at the base of the French Valley, was now open so that would be our destination on Day 4 – an easy 2 hour hike retracing our steps back to the French Valley.

Heading into the French Valley.  The glacier behind us
was continuously calving, causing thunderous roars and sending
avalanches of snow down the mountain side.  

Refreshing, icy cold water was readily available from the mountain streams.
The water was crystal clear, no need to treat or filter. 

That water was cold!

Preparing a pasta dinner at Refugio Cuernos on Day 3.
We splurged for a bottle of wine that night too! 

Day 4 was another beautiful day, a little cooler, but still clear and sunny and a mild breeze, just enough to cool us off.  I was feeling great physically, my body was no longer resisting the trek, and I was feeling very energetic and strong.  My pack was much more manageable too, probably five pounds lighter by now. We made great time to Campemento Italiano (less than two hours) where we left our stuff (we weren’t allowed to set up until after 5:00 pm) and headed back up the French Valley, this time reaching the look out which offered gorgeous views.  The weather was once again changing and we could see rain clouds rolling in so we decided to make our way back to camp to set up before the rain hit. This was my favourite camp ground, nestled in the trees, alongside a raging river.

At the lookout in the French Valley.

Steep trail heading up the French Valley.

Campemento Italiano: My favourite campsite
(ours is the blue tent to the left).

It got really cold that night, probably close to zero.  We wore all our clothes including hat and mitts to keep ourselves warm.  It rained that night, but again our tent kept us dry.  Chris had a rough night, finding it difficult to breathe deeply with his bruised rib. 

There was a chill in the air the next day, our fifth day on the trail.  The plan was to trek 6 hours to Refugio Gray, or the camp ground 1 hour beyond if we had the energy.

Refugio Pehoe in the distance surrounded by a charred landscape.

First we would pass Refugio Pehoe which was also the location to catch the catamaran out of the park. There was no camping allowed here as this area was completely destroyed from the recent fires. The fire came within a meter of the Refugio but the main building was miraculously spared.

 

 

 

It was surprising to see pockets of green vegetation
that had somehow been spared the ravages of the fire.

A distinct line where the fire stopped.

It was sobering as we entered the scorched forest, eerily still, nothing but charred skeletons of trees remaining.  The smell of burnt wood permeated the air.  It was really sad to see the devastation caused by careless human actions.

This was supposed to be an easy hike to Refugio Pehoe, but the wind was picking up again and it was biting cold.  As we reached the Refugio, walking into steady 50 km winds that were pelting us with dirt and charred debris, we saw the 12:30 catamaran heading into shore.

The thought of hiking 4-5 more hours into this biting wind through a scorched forest suddenly lost its appeal to both of us.  When I suggested perhaps we should call it a day and catch the catamaran, Chris agreed wholeheartedly, and I think he was secretly relieved that I didn’t want to push on.  And so concluded our 5 day, 4 night trek through Torres del Paine.

Although we didn’t stay in the park as long as we intended, I was proud of what we accomplished especially considering this was our first trekking experience.  We learned a lot for next time – the importance of keeping our packs as light as possible (forget the binoculars and the video camera), what food works best (we loved the cured salami that we snacked on for the first 2 days),  and generally what we’re capable of (we are old and we are slow).   This park lived up to its reputation for gorgeous scenery, but I was a little put off by how busy the trail was and how congested the camp grounds were at night.  There seemed to be a lot of confusion and mis-information within the park as to what was open, etc. but that may have been a by-product of the forest fires and not truly reflective of how the park is normally run.  I think we’re spoiled in Canada with all the wide open spaces we can enjoy and the beautiful, well run national and provincial parks at our disposal.

We’ve been back in our cozy B&B for a few days, resting up, having our laundry done and getting ourselves organized for our next trekking adventure to Fitz Roy Mountain (Cerro Fitz Roy), located in Parque National Los Glaciares (on the Argentine side of Patagonia). We’re travelling back to El Calafate today where we’ll spend the night and then head out to El Chalten tomorrow where we will begin our next trek. So we’ll be offline again for about a week.  Next stop is Buenos Aires where we will stay in an apartment for two weeks. We’re looking forward to returning to the warmth and sunshine (it was 25C in BA today).

Video:  Newbies Trekking in Torres del Paine
 

Category: Chile, South America
Please leave a comment below. We'd love to hear from you! Both comments and pings are currently closed.
4 Responses
  1. Angus says:

    Hi Guys, I’m exhausted just reading about the trek, talk about roughing it. These days I expect my camp sites to have Internet and flush toilets :)

    Angus

  2. Kaj says:

    Quite an adventure, I’m glad you guys are doing so well. I hope Chris heals up fast

    • chris says:

      Kaj dude…

      It’s hard to keep a good man down… we’re heading out tomorrow to do some more trekking/camping… this time at El Chalten in Argentina… our last few days enjoying the Patagonian mountain range before heading off to Buenos Aires… an adventure it is!

      Basement renos finished yet?

      Chris

  3. Colleen says:

    That is quite a trek you did. It looks like you needed the yellow parka more in Patagonia than in Antarctica. Love reading your tales. BA is going to be real luxury for you.