A 6 day hike in Torres del Paine National Park
So I was heading for Puerto Natales on the bus, so far a little disappointed with the bleak landscape of Patagonia that I had seen so far. But then things started to look up as I saw 'mountains Gandalf!' As I keep seeming to be reminded every few days down here, I should have probably done more research about Patagonia, what to do and the cost of everything before I came, but in this particular instance it was not helpful. Having stumbled across the W trek on a blog long ago in my trip planning, I had endlessly searched out as much information as I could. However, as vast as the internet is, it was failing to give me much in return. Information is sporadic, conflicting, and mostly reduced to blog posts rather than official sites. Mostly what I found out seemed discouraging. February is the most popular time as it is Chilean holidays, the refugios where you can stay on the trek are often booked out weeks or months in advance, companies offering the trek as part of a package were incredibly expensive. As I was starting to have doubts about whether I would be able to do the trek, I finally found a fabulous blog post that explained all you needed to know, including that if you were camping you did not need to book in advance.
I had been trying to decide whether to camp and carry all I required on my back, or head to the refugios to sleep each night. It seems a lack of planning and the cost had made my decision for me. I arrived in Puerto Natales, having shared my one piece of useful knowledge with the Canadian couple from Punta Arenas and another Swiss couple, that there was a 3 o'clock talk at the Erratic Rock hostel/pub about everything you needed to know to do the trek. It was impressively long (1 1/2 hrs) and impressively free. It really did explain everything as there are some very confusing things. The bus in, the separate shuttle bus to the start/or the catamaran across the lake depending on which way you are going, the bizarrely privately owned refugios in a National Park compared to the free campsites. The idea is that they give you enough information to sort everything out that evening and head of the next day, but I wanted to be sure about everything and I was in no rush so I headed out for dinner instead (pancakes anyone) and my first taste of Patagonian beer. Pretty good!
The next day was spent booking buses, hiring equipment, and buying the all essential high energy but low weight food. The talk had given some great suggestions on what to take including spreading tortilla wraps with peanut butter and having them for lunch - this turned out to be genius and tasty! So I found myself in the hostel kitchen at about 8pm making peanut wraps with about 3 other people, because good ideas spread. Below you can see my equipment to carry and my 6 days of food.
My only regret was that I hadn't met anyone else doing the hike by themselves, and whilst I was sure to meet people along the way, I was a bit concerned that 5 days hiking by myself might be a bit ... long. Despite planning on going to bed early, I walked through the common area to see a repeat of Wales v England on the TV, so of course I jumped on a bar stool and shared a beer or two with an Aussie, a Scouser and two American med students who seemed confused. In the morning I had agreed to meet the med students to walk to the bus after breakfast (scrambled eggs and delicious homemade jam). Whilst waiting I had a quick chat with a girl who was doing the same as me only opposite. The W trek is usually done in 5 days/4 nights but I was adding an extra day as I had found you could go kayaking through icebergs and up to a glacier at one end of the trek. She was doing the same but starting with the kayaking whereas I was finishing. We both lamented the fact we hadn't met 24 hrs earlier so we could have hired one less tent and one less stove, but that was it and we parted without exchanging names.
Day 1: Puerto Natales to Las Torres campsite
I started the day with the awesome hostel breakfast then almost missing the bus as I waited for the American med students to get ready. On the way to the park I saw rheas (ostrich like birds) and guanacos (llama like creatures). Once we were paid up and in the park the bused all head off to the different starting points.
I headed off with a Swiss couple I first met in Punta Arenas but soon left them to walk at my own pace. It was pretty hard work uphill, and according to the sign, was uphill all the way to the campsite. Just as this was sounding pretty unappealing I came to the crest of a hill and saw the path winding down into a valley and what appeared to the refugio Chileano which was on the way. According to the times, this appeared far to soon and with so much experience of thinking you've got further than you had I refused to believe it was until I walked in and read the sign. Turns out that we discovered over the trek that the altitude diagrams provided were not only inaccurate but often just the opposite of what actually happened! However, the timings did often seem longer we took, which is always the pleasant way round.
The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed the 'we'. Once I had reached the Las Torres campsite, put up my tent and got my first taste of the refreshingly pure glacial water from the stream I was headed back to my tent and saw a familiar face. It was the girl I had met that morning only she had obviously started the other way. It turned out she had been incredibly unlucky and had her wallet lost or stolen, sometime between getting on the bus and getting to the park entrance. Fortunately the rangers were incredibly helpful, letting her into the park for free and sorting out a reservation at this campsite and she had been lent some money by a friend of a friend. After finally introducing ourselves. I helped Emily set up her tent and we became the dream team of hiking for several days.
My first camp at Las Torres and drinking delicious water!
Once we were all set up we set off up the final path to the Torres del Paine. These are the famous towers after which the park is named, and are three spiky peaks rising up from a lake. The jagged nature to the top of the peaks has been something that has become more familiar with my time in Patagonia, but the first viewing of these sorts of peaks was pretty incredible. Despite the fact the many photos we took don’t do the scenery justice at all, I will be leaving any attempts to describe it to the pictures.
Once we had been up there an hour or so, had chocolate, got cold, got my foot wet trying to get out onto the lake for a jump shot and taken many photos for other people, we headed back down to camp thinking of dinner. There was a shelter for cooking, but as everyone was cooking more or less at the same time we found ourselves some rocks outside and got creating. One of the food suggestions from the talk had been rather than taking sauce, which is heavy, even when in packets, was to take powdered soup to add as a sauce to pasta. This was generally taken up by most people as you can really save weight here. So on my first evening I had cheese ravioli with tomato soup/sauce which whilst not being gourmet cooking, was warm and filling.
The plan was to get up at 4.30am to head back up to the Torres del Paine to watch the sunrise and so feeling quite tired I was planning on heading to bed. However, we got pulled into a card game of moderate violence with some Israeli campers which kept us occupied for sometime.
Day 2: Las Torres campsite to Refugio Cuernos
Invariably you wake up during the night when camping and each time I did there was rain pattering on the tent. It always (I think) sounds worse than it is, so each time I was hoping it wasn’t too bad. When my alarm went off at 4.30 it was still raining and so I started the should or shouldn’t I get up. After about ten minutes I stuck my head out and it didn’t seem to be too bad but I thought I’d give it a bit longer. You could hear people trying to make the same decisions in other tents and the general consensus appeared to be no. In the end it seemed too cold and wet and I went back to sleep feeling a bit guilty in case Emily had gone by herself. At around 7.30 Emily came to see if I was in my tent, also concerned I might have gone without her! Luckily it seems we made the right decision as some of the campers who had gone up said they spent about 5 minutes up there before coming down. This was the first time of many, where the weather didn’t quite go our way.
Unfortunately it was still raining, so we had to the pack up in the wet. It sort of looked (very hopefully) like the weather at the other end of the valley was brighter so it seemed best to get started. As we passed the camp further down the track we saw lots of people who seemed undecided as to whether to head up to the Torres. Lucky for us we had gone the day before.
We made our way down the valley and off onto the shortcut that took us towards Las Cuernos. All this while the weather was being endlessly hopeful with brighter skies and sun further away, but never quite improving enough to stop raining. As we headed out of the first valley and along Lake Nordenskjold we got our first glimpses of some more amazingly jagged snow covered peaks. With the clouds misting around them they looked stunning, but no photo captured what we could see.
Smiling in the rain
As we walked we found that firstly people seemed to be leaving hats all over the trail (or two) and secondly, the signposts that contained altitude diagrams of the trail to come seemed to be wholly inaccurate. Sometimes this was great, as the uphill you were expecting never came! Given our relatively early start we got to our campsite at the Cuernos Refugio around 2.30, and rudely it started raining again. Luckily, this is one of the privately owned sites and is therefore not free, but had slightly more facilities than Las Torres. This meant we could sit inside a proper room with a wood stove in the corner keeping us toasty warm. However, despite the facilities, the actual camping spaces were a bit thin on the ground (at least flat and sheltered ones). I had made a quick scope of the sites available and despite being some of the first there, we still didn’t seem to have much option. I quickly headed back to get Emily and our stuff so we could get our tents up before anymore were taken.
Drying my tent and feeling clean after a hot shower.
By now the weather was being kind and a good wind was blowing which dried our tents very quickly. We also had the luxury of taking a hot shower which all seemed incredibly decadent whilst camping. Whilst exploring the campsite we found a great waterfall, and a beautiful hot-tub which unfortunately was not included in the price of camping..
Dinner was busy in the shelter whilst people waited for spots at a table to open up. We were in there early so grabbed a spot to cook this deliciousness!
I also met up again with my Canadian friends from Punta Arenas who were going in the opposite direction from us, so we swapped stories of what was to come. It was a beautiful end to a generally wet day and we enjoyed it down on the shores of the lake wrapped in all out clothes and Emily’s sleeping bag to keep warm.
Day 3: Cuernos to Camp Italiano
We had a relaxed morning as it was only a short distance to Camp Italiano where we could put up our tents and leave our packs before heading up Valle Frances. It was a nice straightforward walk to the camp, and there was even sun for us. Italiano was the other free campsite, next to a fast flowing river and after setting up our tents in a sheltered spot, we left our packs and our walking poles behind to head up to the mirador for Glacier del Frances that we had been beginning to see all morning. The trail was steep and rocky and initially quite hard work. However we came to the first mirador sooner than we thought for some stunning views of the glacier and back towards the lake. Here we stopped for lunch, which was delicious. The peanut butter wraps seemed to be getting better and better! It was incredibly windy up there, so after a short break we set off to head further up to the next mirador. The trail was long, windy and rocky, but without our full backpacks felt straightforward and we headed up at a good pace. Finally we got to what was currently the top, as the last section of trail was closed. Here you got a combined view of all that is on offer in the park. We could see glacial ice coming down between peaks, snow capped mountains and jaggedy peaks in the style of the Torres.
Eventually we decided to head down which is when we realised we maybe should have brought our walking poles, as of course downhill is far worse on the knees than uphill. As we were coming down through the woods we heard a huge noise, like a rumble of thunder right overhead. I peered out to the glacier to see if I could see anything falling and then I saw this huge white avalanche of snow and ice and water heading down the mountain. A massive part of the glacier must have given way and the noise and sights were amazing. Even once the main cloud had dispersed, a torrent of water was pouring down from high up the side of the glacier where the ice must have fallen from. A few minutes later we reached the first mirador and met a park ranger who informed us that was a big one and we had been really lucky to see it!
Back down at camp we were nailing the cooking, getting just the right amount of water for a perfect sauce, as well as meeting up with the American med students from the hostel and chatting to a Brit who had been living in Antarctica for the last 15 months. You always meet some interesting people in places like this!
Day 4: Italiano to Refugio Grey
Windy would be how I would describe this day of hiking. We knew it was going to be quite a long day and we wanted an early-ish start so we could get to the campsite before the majority in order to get a decent camp spot. The first part of the hike was relatively flat but the wind was getting steadily stronger. As Emily was filming this wind, I may have been blown over - and not on purpose! Despite this we reached Refugio Paine Grande in good time and quickly found some shelter. We were grateful to not be camping there, since it was basically an open field where the tents were getting the full brunt of the wind.
The difficulty came as we headed off towards Grey. We were now heading up the valley that the wind was coming straight down. And going uphill. It was hard work. Luckily we had been warned about the misleading (again!) signs that seemed to imply we would be at the highest point much quicker than we were. The highest point was also the mirador and first place to properly see Glacier Grey. Until then I had got very excited about seeing some icebergs in the water that were that incredible blue that seems to exist in glacier ice. When we reached the top we stopped for lunch, sheltering behind a bush and our packs before crawling to the lookout for the view and some photos. Sitting down seemed to be the safest option as the wind was pretty ridiculous!
We had heard that the last section to Grey was tough going, so we assumed it was uphill. However, it turned out to be downhill, but very steep and some scrambly sections which are tough when you’ve got a massive bag on your back. But we made it, all the time seeing the glacier get closer and closer and seem bigger and bigger. It was so hard to get a sense of scale, I couldn’t tell if the face of the glacier was 2 metres or 20 metres high.
The wind had made me think about the kayaking which I had planned to do the next day and I was concerned that they wouldn’t be running it in this wind. I was right. We headed down to the BigFoot base camp on the shore of Lake Grey and had a chat with one of the instructors. He said he doubted they would kayak the next day either, but they might go with Plan B and take us out in a boat and show us the glacier. I kept my fingers crossed for a good weather turnaround.
Refugio Grey was definitely the nicest of the private sites we decided. In their dining room area for the guests that were paying for their meals was a proper bar section. So after deciding against queueing for the showers (what was one more day?) we headed to the bar and I tried my first Pisco Sour. This is a classic cocktail of Chile, made with pisco, lemon juice and egg white. Pretty delicious and a good celebration of effectively finishing the W trek!
Day 5: Staying at Refugio Grey
The night did not raise my hopes for kayaking. The tent was battered to and fro by the wind, and if anything, it had got stronger. We headed down to the kayaking base at 10am instructed to be informed that Plan B had turned into Plan C, which was come inside and drink mate (the South American hot drink). This we did for a while, whilst some of the instructors did some training on ice axes hanging from the ceiling.
Eventually we headed back into the wind and set off further up the track to get to a lookout that was over the glacier. This is the part of the track you continue on if you do the ‘O’ which is the whole circuit, rather than just the ‘W’ and would take about 8 or 9 days. We were just enjoying that we didn’t need to pack up our tents or carry a heavy bag today. Although before we left we did pick up our tents in their entirety and move them to a better, more sheltered spot as people packed up and left!
The views were again, spectacular. We crossed steep suspension bridges, went down sketchy ladders pinned into the rock and eventually found a lookout over the glacier where you could see the folds, crevasses, and lumps and bumps on the surface. Even now, the scale was difficult. We had been shown a map in the morning of how the glacier was receding about 100m a year, and so the island in the photos is around 3km long even if it doesn’t look it. The glacier is one of many that come of the South Patagonian Ice Field, which I believe is the largest collection of fresh water in the world after the two poles.
Saying goodbye to the glacier, we headed back down to camp for our final pasta/soup meal and a much quieter nights sleep in our new position.
Day 6: Grey to Puerto Natales
Finally the weather was on our side and the sun was shining for our final day in the park. We walked back along Lake Grey to the mirador, and this time we were able to stand and take photos at the edge! In plenty of time for the catamaran that takes you back to the bus, we reached Paine Grande and enjoyed a celebratory Twix and whisky that Emily had managed to carry the whole way! The boat ride showed us the amazing colours that appear in the lake when the sun is shining and then we collapsed onto the bus to be taken back to Puerto Natales where we had plans to eat fresh veggies!
Finished! Celebrating in style!
We met up in Erratic Rock where we had to take back our hired equipment to share a first beer. Then we headed to a veggie restaurant I had found, for a delicious spread of veggies and hummus, sharing falafel and lasagne, before finding room for a slice of lemon cheesecake.It tasted so good - just what we needed.
I had already booked a bus to cross the border into Argentina the next day and Emily had to sort her wallet situation out and so was unsure what her plans were. We said goodbye after dinner, hopeful that we would meet up in a few days in El Chalten, which unfortunately wasn’t to be. What was a wonderfully random 5 minute chat on the first morning, led to a great 6 days of speedy hiking, great photos, lots of chocolate and lots of fun, as well as a new friend to visit in San Francisco.