Torres del Paine, Patagonia Chile
Ever since I started walking down from the base camp of Mount Everest towards the airstrip at Lukla in 1999, I began to fantasize about the granite spires of Patagonia…
I had just completed an intense post-doctoral fellowship and was mentally spent; I wanted a trip to rest my brain and challenge my body. It would be a 10-12 day backpacking adventure around the whole circuit of Torres del Paine in Patagonia. My backpacking buddy and I planned for months…it was all looking so perfect….
Until a hiker in the park tried to burn some toilet paper about a month before we were to leave.
The park was on fire, closed until further notice; fire control was hampered by Patagonia’s infamously high, unpredictible winds. Yes, we had trip insurance, but no, I was in no mood to actually cancel. So we had a Plan B. And C. And D…
We met in Miami, then flew together to Santiago. Then to Punta Arenas. Then took a bus to Puerto Natales. Then another bus to Torres del Paine. Then a shuttle into the park. We declined the additional catamaran to the main trailhead – we were pretty much ready to start walking. And in hindsight it was exactly the right call.
When we arrived at the Laguna Amarga ranger station/park entrance to wait in line (er, register and pay our fee), we were informed by a rather unpleasant park volunteer who boarded our bus that as of today, the park was now completely open, but that it was terribly dangerous, that none of us was prepared to hike the circuit, that a woman from Chile was missing and probably dead, and that we would all likely meet that same fate if we tried to hike the circuit. But she said it was open! Yeeeaah!
There were just two campgrounds that were still closed (one was no longer in existence, having been burned away completely; the other was simply still closed), but the circuit was now open for hiking, and Campamento Italiano, a significant stopping point in the Valle Frances, was open as of today.
We paid our fee, grabbed our free map, hopped a shuttle to the trailhead, bypassed the catamaran option, and finally started walking.
Day one would be about 12k, to Camping Seron, towards the back side of the circuit and away from the Park’s namesake granite spires…and away from the crowds. Everyone else went the other way, opting for the shorter, far more popular W trek. It’s a good option if you only had 4 days or so, and so many people in the park had little or no backpacking experience.
The trail was well-marked, the sky huge. We wandered off a few times and made life a little tougher for ourselves than it needed to be, but the views were breathtaking.
Camping Seron was basically a campout in someone’s back yard. There was a little house with bathrooms and hot showers and a sink outside. There was a side porch that may have – at some point – sold food, but not while we were there. The wind was pretty ferocious on our first day, and thankfully there was also a little shed in the backyard to shelter us while we cooked. We chit-chatted with some of the other trekkers: most from Chile, all young, none with backpacking experience. They pulled out glass bowls, wooden cutting boards, whole onions, fresh peppers, fruit…I must admit that I was a bit envious of their fragrant dinner as I munched my Mountain House.
Our first day and night had given us a taste of the region’s infamous weather, with my tent nearly flattened sideways during the night, generating so much static electricity from the fly rubbing against the tent walls that I was afraid I was going to start yet another fire. But the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 held up like a champ.
The wind and the rain had stopped – for the most part – by morning.
The day’s walk would be 20k of mostly flat trail, making the turn around the back side of the circuit and following the Rio Paine towards Lago Paine, then eventually to Lago Dickson. The trees were amazingly weird, the ground was covered in thick, hard lumps of lichen, and the views just got better with each step we took.
We had one bit of some humorously strong winds that threatened to knock us off a cliff at one point, then some freezing rain, followed by hot sun followed by humorously strong winds AND freezing rain, then hot sun…I spent more time and energy changing outerwear than I did actually hiking. I did figure out (albeit belatedly) that by simply using the hood on my Marmot Precip jacket I could completely block out the freezing wind/rain combo. That made me very, very happy.
Our stop for the night would be Camping Dickson, the first refugio on the circuit – for those with reservations…and a willingness to spend $80 a night on a stinky dormitory bunk bed in order to avoid sleeping on the ground.
My cozy tent, however, had some amazing views that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
I tried taking a shower – since one of the other hikers had said it was “refreshing.” I have camped and hiked in some amazing, far-flung places. I have taken showers in some amazing, far-flung places, including in a stone outhouse at 16,000 feet with a bucket of ice cold water to tip over on top of yourself. Never, in all my travels, have I had a colder, more miserable attempted-shower than the one I tried to take that afternoon. The water was cold (expected…). The wind was strong. The shower was essentially outdoors, with your head visible above the “door,” which then really only extended to your knees. You stood in a plastic litter box with a hole in the bottom, suspended about three feet off the ground by some rotting 2x4s. The wind came off the glacier (gorgeous view from the shower stall!) and sailed right on through the bit of available door. There was no place to put your clothes (except in the shower itself), so as the wind whipped through it wet the clean, dry clothes I had balanced precariously above the shower head. I shampooed my hair but didn’t really rinse, as I was shivering so much I couldn’t really concentrate enough to get rid of the soap. I stumbled back to my tent with soapy hair and a still-dirty body as Jocelyn was getting out of her tent, arms full of promising shower paraphernalia. “How was it?” she asked excitedly.
Here is where I could have been a very, very mean person.
“Awful. The worst shower I’ve ever taken. Don’t bother.”
“Oh.” Then she promptly returned to her tent, disappointed but dry and warm. I shivered for the next three days.
We woke to a wonderful sunrise over an amazing glacier – the first of what would be several amazing glaciers, each one more impressive than the one before.
Today’s hike would be short and would take us to the tree line, then we would have some leeway in terms of waiting for good weather to cross Paso John Gardner, or heading on up and over if the next day’s weather was kind.
The hike from Dickson to Los Perros was through the densest forest of the park, and I was enthralled with the disorganization of the Magellenic forests.
We continued to have decent weather for the whole day, with only a mild spot of drizzle and wind that completely abated by the time we arrived at camp. We passed some gauchos – men on horseback shuttling foodstuffs and other sundries between Dickson and Los Perros. The horses were untethered and the gauchos fast.
As we approached the tree line – only to head back down a bit for camping – the misty skies and the rocky terrain made for some cool vistas.
Once at Los Perros, we set up, had a nap, cooked some noodles, and ogled our maps for the day ahead. Los Perros is actually quite a lovely campground, with a small sheltered cooking house with a wood burning stove and wonderful campsites with great views. There is supposed to be a day-hike side trip to see the campground’s namesake glacier, but for some reason the trail was closed. I took advantage of my forced laziness to rest and prepare for the rather difficult day ahead: crossing Paso John Gardner.
Part of me was hoping for bad weather so I could rest – for some reason my trusty, years-old, oft-used pack was bothering my left shoulder and arm. It had started at the end of day two, but it actually worsened during the short 8k hike yesterday. I was somewhat dreading putting the pack back on, and I could not for the life of me figure out what was different and why it was bothering me now, of all times.
But alas we awoke to cloudy skies but no wind, and the whole campground was packing up to head out. The trail was a bit, um, challenging at the start:
But we all had a good sense of humor about boots full of mud, and the dozen or so groups of people making their way to the pass laughed at themselves and each other as we took turns falling and losing our shoes.
Soon the trees and the mud fell behind us and we faced an unexpectedly pleasant, relatively gradual uphill to the pass in front of us. And oh! the glaciers…
Then, once you reach the pass, the view is astounding. Breathtaking. Windy. Really, really windy.
The way up was actually far easier than I had expected. I was not tired – but it was lunch time and I must admit I was quite hungry. The pass itself was a bit too windy to enjoy a snack with the views, so we started down the ridiculously steep and perilous descent to look for a nice calm spot for a bite to eat.
Jocelyn was quite cold – she volunteered four days into the trip that anything colder than 78 degrees was too cold – so we needed to find a sunny, leeward spot before we could stop for lunch. My hunger finally overpowered me and we sat down not so much in a sunny spot, but at least we were out of the wind.
The sun did eventually start to peek out and our spirits were high…but the relentless descent soon took care of whatever good mood we had. You leisurely ascend 680m over 9k, then descend what appears to be a cliff, but in actuality is only a painfully steep 800m in about 3k. Even with my trusty trekking poles my knees were screaming in no time as I watched hiker after hiker hop, skip and jump from log to root to rock and fade into the distance below me. It was rather depressing, actually, as I think of myself in pretty good shape. Hmph.
We arrived at Campamento Paso quite weary and hungry. The free campground was rather nice and had good tent spots and a nice exposed picnic table to enjoy the nice weather; but the cooking shelter was fairly dank and somewhat large group of rowdy souls had already overtaken the table. So we ate our noodles in the dirty shelter and called it a day. I hiked back down to the main trail for another look at the dominant feature of landscape: Glacier Grey.
Today we hiked to Refugio Grey, which was only about 10k but my legs were a little jello-y after that descent yesterday. Thankfully the trail was relatively flat with constant presence of the awesome Glacier Grey dominating the right side of the trail. Our easy stroll was interrupted by some rather intimidating obstacles…
But at least they weren’t the old rope ladders I read about in my Lonely Planet guide.
We continued across several of these crossings, which afforded us some pretty amazing views of the mountains.
We found a short path out of Campamento Los Guardas for a terrific view of the calving end of the glacier.
The plan was to stay at the campground at Refugio Grey for two days to give us time to rest, recuperate and do some laundry. And here, finally, there were some showers with actual wind breaks (walls!) and hot water. It was heaven. We had gorgeous weather for resting, reading, stretching, relaxing, and napping. All was great until my Nook, battery life promised to be weeks, weeks! ran out after just five days. Hmmmm….
But the very nice people at Refugio Grey found a cell phone charger that fit and we sat in their brand new refugio dining room charging my e-reader and drinking a beer and chatting with some folks from Chicago – who also happen to have worked at the same PT clinic I worked at for a while. Small world!
Refugio Grey was brand new this trekking season; opened just 10 days before the fire halted the trekking season in that part of the park. It was a great little building with good showers, good bathrooms, a nice indoor cooking room, a decent store and the lodge looked quite lovely – much more worthy of an $80/night price tag than the previous refugio at Dickson.
We retired to our tents to find that the campground had been literally overrun by a group of Israeli youths on some kind of group trip. A very loud group trip. Very, very loud. Thankfully they were hiking all the way to Campamento Italiano the next day and we were treating ourselves to a night at the partially burned out Paine Grande Lodge, which we had heard could be had for a mere $15/night, including meals.
Today would be the “ashfest” we’d heard about so much back in our hostel in Puerto Natales and along the trail. A fellow guest at the Singing Lamb had tried to hike the whole circuit, but after spending a day hiking from Grey to Paine Grande he just hopped the catamaran back to the buses…he’d had enough.
This would be the first of two days of hiking through the completely burned out area, and we’d heard plenty of stories of trekkers putting out fires that popped up along the way. Part of what makes forest fires so dangerous in Torres del Paine is the intricate underground root system of the Magellenic forests. Apparently the fires actually travel underground for long distances – in addition to being carried by the strong winds. We could see how the fire had jumped large lakes to completely burn whole islands, then jump again to the far side of the lake to keep on burning. But it was the underground fires that were so dangerous – because you never knew when one would pop up under your feet. We’d been told to use a bandana to cover our faces and to wear glasses to keep the ash out of our mouths and eyes, to keep an eye out for fires and to be prepared to put them out if we could; all in all we were somewhat dreading this stretch.
But I have to say this was probably the most gorgeous part of the whole trek. The fire damage left behind an eerily beautiful landscape, and today’s weather was simply perfect. No wind, not a cloud in the sky, temperatures in the 70s…it was an absolutely amazing day to hike. And the views were just astounding.
By the end of the day we had entered a valley where the fire had been quite severe. It was creepy, actually. The silence was – to use an appropriate cliche – deafening. I’m not sure I actually have ever heard such silence before. The ground was strange to walk on, the skeletons of the trees amazing to look at; the rocks looked as though they’d splintered in the heat.
And then, at the bottom of the valley, we saw what everyone comes to the park to see: the Cuernos. Named because they look like the horn of a rhino (do they?) the classic rock faces demonstrate the odd geology of the region: perfectly white granite topped by perfectly black. And no where, no one could tell us why this is. Did you know you cannot buy a book anywhere in Puerto Natales about the geography of Patagonia??
Anyway, the Paine Grande Lodge – also relatively new – somehow was spared the fire, but the campground was not. But because the place had no electricity, no heat, barely any food and still smelled A LOT like smoke, it was a pretty darned cheap bunk bed. This was nice, because the only alternative was to keep walking to Campamento Italiano, 8k away. We could have done this, but Jocelyn had been dreaming of a hot meal ever since we saw a huge slab of something meaty being served at Refugio Grey while charging my Nook.
So we paid our $15 and settled into a very, very stinky dorm room. Perhaps it was the fire, but I think a bigger problem was the Bulgarians who were airing their socks and boots out inside the cramped room instead of out like everyone else…but that’s an aside.
Then came the ultimate insult: we queued for our pre-paid, much-anticipated dinner, only to find they were serving pork. I love pork and thought the steak they served was one of the best pieces of pork I’ve ever eaten. Jocelyn, on the other hand…Jocelyn, who’d eaten nothing on this trip but a loaf of bread she’d purchased at Refugio Grey because she couldn’t stomach the freeze-dried food she brought…Jocelyn, who’d talked for days about how much she wanted to eat a big slab of meat at Paine Grande…Jocelyn doesn’t eat pork. At all.
So I quietly enjoyed my quite tasty and filling meal, then we sat in the sunroom of the refugio to watch the sun set and read. The next day we headed to Valle Frances.
The hike was another fire-damaged, creepy-but-beautiful one, as we continued to hike through the burned area of the park. Looking out over Lago Pehoe we could see islands that had burned completely – as did everything we could see on the opposite shore. Normally a lake such as this would have served as a good fire break, but the winds here are so strong and unpredictable that we could imagine all those embers blowing about, landing so far away and igniting the island, then jumping the lake again to cross to the other side. We could also see the very finite line where the grass and shrubs were brown – and then they were green.
We continued about 2 hours until we reached Campamento Italiano – finally opened to campers the day we arrived in the park. We saw some tents erected, so we decided to set up ours, leave our stuff, then hike unencumbered to Camp Britanico (which was closed to overnight camping), then return in time for dinner.
We found a great spot, set them up, stashed our packs and started walking. And then a ranger stopped by.
Apparently there was no setting up of tents until 3p. It was noon.
But what about those other tents already set up? we asked. They are for the park employees who work here. Oh.
But now it’s late…can we really not just leave them up while we day hike? Um…please? Thankfully my spanish is pretty good, and I chit-chatted the ranger a bit. He looked at his watch; it was only a few hours early……
So off we hiked, leaving our tents in our nice spot well away from the non-working toilets.
The hike was actually pretty difficult; I was partially thankful Camp Britanico was closed for overnight camping because wow that would have been tough with full packs. Granted, our food was pretty much gone at this point, but this trail reminded me very much of hiking in the White Mountains: 12′ granite rock face…sounds EXACTLY like where the trail should go!
We lost the trail for a bit – thanks to my quite blatantly stepping over what in hindsight was an obvious log obstacle telling us NOT to go this way – but it actually made for a very nice viewpoint when we finally decided we were nowhere near the trail.
But we were able to find our way again – and made it to Britanico for some high-fiving and picture-taking.
We decided the hike down would be a practice run – as we wanted to be able to descend like so many others who were rock-hopping past us in record time. We did fairly well – no broken ankles – and enjoyed views down the valley.
Notice the brown and green ground cover? The brown is the area that was burned – you can see how extensive it is around the lake.
We returned to a very crowded campground, and enjoyed a nice dinner with lots of random hikers around the very tiny cooking shelter. This was the heart of the W trek, and we had been dreading the crowds we knew we would face. The previous campgrounds saw maybe 10-12 different groups. Now there would be hundreds. We were not wrong.
A woman from Japan was hiking alone and asked me to boil some water for her – she had not brought a stove; this was where we would see all the inexperienced hikers try their hand at backpacking.
Today we woke to unbelievably gorgeous skies and perfect temperatures, which we would need for our 22k hike to Camp Chileno in the Valle Ascencio. Today we would hike across the front of the Cuernos, along Lago Nordenskjold, and halfway up the valley to the campground.
The views were mostly behind us for the majority of the day, but the sun was shining, the temperatures were fantastic, and for lunch we enjoyed 2 cans of coca-cola and one small can of Kryspos for a mere $18 on the front porch of Refugio los Cuernos. Ahhhh…
We met three other hikers from the states who were actually going to try to make it all the way to Campamento las Torres, another hour or so past Chileno; we left them on the porch enjoying their $6 coca-colas and we headed back uphill. We passed several trains of horses with “trekkers” on them – looking remarkably like cruise ship passengers – and again we were reminded that we were in the heart of the super-touristy W-trek and any hint of wilderness was gone.
But that certainly didn’t change those big skies.
Once we made it to the Valle Ascencio the sun was starting to set behind the mountains, and we sat for a rest while watching a literal line of people making their way to and from the massive and expensive Hotel las Torres to the park’s namesake granite spires. We had about 30 more minutes to walk before we reached Chileno, and then our friends from the states caught up with us. They were still going on to Las Torres, but were just as exhausted as we were.
We said our goodbyes at the campground – they were tortured by having to walk right on through the campground to continue on to Las Torres – while Jocelyn and I tried to find two tent spots on a rather uncomfortable tent pad. Right next to the horses’ bathroom.
The plan was to sleep late, leisurely walk to Campamento las Torres and laze the day away. Maybe have a look at the Torres, maybe not; we would be waking up at 4:30 am the next day to hike to the lookout to watch the sunrise. That would be our finale of the park, and what a great way to end the trip.
The hike to las Torres was pleasant and uneventful, and we ran into our friends making their way back down. They had managed to make it to las Torres, awaken in time to hike the hour to the lookout, watch the sunrise, and now they were heading back to the shuttle pick up to catch a bus back to town. They were very happy they had suffered the night before and said oh yes, the hike to watch the sunrise was WELL worth it.
Onward we walked, arrived at the campground very early and managed to have our pick of campsites. We looked for ones in the sun, but unfortunately the campground was situated in the only bit of tree cover in the whole valley. I washed some socks, took a nap, read my book, and Jocelyn and I sat around and chit-chatted about our trip until it was time for bed. It really had been a great hike, and if the weather held up it was going to be a great way to end it. I just couldn’t believe our good weather luck this whole trip: Patagonia is known for ridiculously strong winds, snow, ice, rain, sleet, hot, cold…all we saw was a brief bit of wind on day one, a brief bit of showers on day two, and then pretty much nothing but clear blue skies for the rest. Occasional clouds, but nothing that would let me claim that I had endured Patagonian weather. Unless, of course, living in Chicago has altered my expectations….
The alarm went off at 4:30 and we packed our sleeping bags, stoves and coffee (thanks Erratic Rock!) and headed up to the lookout. I frequently end up hiking in the dark, and this was a very cool experience. The skies were clear, we could see the outline of the granite Torres peaking out every now and then, and the trail was easy to follow. Mostly.
We arrived at the lookout, found a good spot and hunkered down. There were certainly a fair number of people joining us – but we were the only ones who had thought to bring sleeping bags and stoves (yeah hot coffee!) for the hour-long wait for the red hues of sunrise. It was extremely cold, actually – colder than I had been on the whole trip. But it was nice to wrap myself in all that wonderful down and be toasty, while all those fellow hikers jumped up and down and tried to warm up.
There was a crowd of about 35 or so by the time the sun started to peak behind the mountains, and soon we could see the first hint of red…and then there it was, glorious…