Published: February 16th 2009January 26th 2009
Preparations at Erratic Rock
The hostel of Erratic Rock in the town of Puerto Natales is brilliant for travellers heading to the famous Torres del Paine national park. There are two main treks undertaken in the park the 4/5 day "W" and the "circuit" a longer 9/10 day trek. The hostel hold a free and highly informative talk daily that gives you all the information you could possibly need to do either. It was there that I met up with Rita and Michelle who said I could join them to do the W along with Laura and Ross.
After the talk, which covered everything from what to wear, what to eat, a suggested itinerary and more, it was time to go and rent all our equipment. The guy was very professional and thorough, checking the equipment he gave us, and even better as we got everything from him he gave us a huge discount, around 30%! After that it was a trip to the supermarket to stock up on dried fruit and supernoodles.
It was quite late by the time I´d finished packing and the bus to the park left at 7.30 so I was
Taken from the campsite (Day 1)
tired before the trekking even began! After paying the entrance fee in the park, it was back on the bus for a short ride further in to the shores of Lake Pehoe. Dumping our bags by the dock for the catamaran we took off to visit a waterfall nearby (as recommended by erratic rock). We had to walk at quite a pace to get there and back in time for the catamaran. But the waterfall was cool. Wouldn´t fancy falling down it - very powerful and very cold! It was all glacier runoff. It was slightly strange being above and looking down on it though. Already the landscape was amazing. The view behind the waterfall would of been worth a picture on its own.
Back at the dock the queue for the catamaran had multiplied but given that our bags had been dumped right at the front we bypassed a lot of it. Did still get stuck behind a large group of Japanese (they´re always Japanese!) tourists who all seemed to have holdalls or suitcases. I somehow doubt they were planning to walk anywhere so I did wonder why they needed so much stuff! Lake Pehoe is an amazing
From the mirador (Day 1)
greeny blue colour as it to is all glacier runoff. It was a very calm ride across as the weather was good, even the infamous Pataganian wind wasn´t that bad.
Once we disembarqued it was the start of the roughly 4 hour hike up to Refugio and Camping Grey. The path for the most part went parallel to Lago Grey and when it came out onto the edge overlooking the edge we got a taste of how strong the wind could be. Not as strong as it can be it was still cold and pretty powerful. We didn´t stay in those places long but hurried along the path to find a more sheltered place to stop.
As we got closer to the campsite Glacier Grey, which feeds the lake, came into view. It was pretty spectacular. All along the lake we had seen iceburgs floating and the glacier itself didn´t disappoint. It was huge. When we finally made it in to camp we were on the lake edge much closer to the glacier and there was ice floating less than 50 feet from where we pitched the tent! The campsite was a paid one as there was the
refugio on site so there were toilet and shower facilities as well as a shop. They weren´t the best facilities though for the campers. I´m sure it was nicer inside the building. There was a free campsite which was further up the trail - but it was two hours further along! I think we made the best decision to stay at Grey as we heard it wasn´t worth the extra walk. Instead we walked the ten minutes to the mirador. From up high we managed to get some good overall views of the glacier although not for long as the wind was very strong up there. Down at the edge of the lake in a small bay there were many floating iceburgs which had fallen of the glacier and then couldn´t move any further. After our first dinner of pasta and cheese we went to bed early as we were tired and it was cold.
Over night it had been raining heavily with strong winds (the worst weather we were going to get as it turned out - good luck) and unfortunately Rita and Michelle both got wet as the wind pushed the outer against the
inner and water came through. I was in the middle however and was snug as a bug, (bit of personal good luck).
Most of day two was walking back over day one, which was the easier way as it turned out, but then plus another two hours on top to the entrance to the Valle Frances. By the time we reached the Campsite Italiano, after crossing a bridge that only held two people at a time and crossed a very fast river, we were all very glad. The campsite was very basic but did have toilets. It also had a shelter for cooking in but we decided that smelt too bad so ate outside it instead - a second meal of pasta and cheese. After that it was collecting water from the stream and washing the dishes a little way away. The brilliant think about the park is that you can drink all the water in it - straight out of the streams/rivers/lakes! And there are plenty of those!
After breakfast (porridge everyday) we left our stuff in the tent and taking only the essentials we headed up into Valle Frances - the middle part
of the W. Once again we were so so lucky with the weather, it was really sunny, and the views down the valley were just incredible. It´s had to think of ways to convey how stunning the scenery is. Even the photos don´t really do it justice. Michelle and I just walked in for about an hour and half before heading back as it looked like the path was heading inland for a while. The others carried on a bit further and said they reached a mirador, which was a little disappointing but we got to stop at various points on the way down and just sit/lay, chat and enjoy the view. On the other side of the valley to the trail are steep cliffs with glaciers on. At various times we would hear a thunder like sound and see ice crashing down the side of the valley. There were several of these mini avalanches.
There was also a river, that seemed to run down the side of the glacier which was a bit odd. It wasn´t a particularly large volume of water but the steepness of it and the boulders that it was running down meant a tremendous
amount of spray was thrown up. You can imagine that anything that ended up in it was soon smashed to pieces and/or extremely battered.
Back down at the campsite Laura and Ross had packed up and were ready to go before us 3 girls so they headed off and we left about half an hour later. It was meant to be a two hour walk to the next campsite. However we´re not sure where but somewhere along the line we went very wrong. Down at the lake front, which was amazingly calm with great reflections of the clouds and mountains in, the trail seemed to end and we couldn´t see the way to go. We then found a trail, albeit overgrown and followed that. It was very overgrown all the way and not always that clear. After crossing a stream just before it went over a falls the trail deadended. We had come upon a rockfall and the trail did not seem to continue in any direction. By this point we were quite high up from the lake. Then we saw people walking along a trail along the lake shore. Pretty pissed off that we had climbed up without
needing to and frustrated wondering where the hell the path we´d missed had been we decided to climb down the rocks and head for the path as there seemed no other way to go. After getting to the bottom of the rocks we realised that there wasn´t a trail and the plants were pretty dense. So followed some furious pushing of ourselves and fat backpacks through the bushes - I had the scratches all over my arms to prove it. We emerged onto the trail practically on top of a somewhat startled man who got the most enthusiastic greeting but he did inform us that we were only 10 minutes from the campsite.
Arriving at the campsite we caught up with Laura and Ross who it turned out had done the exact same thing as us! We dumped our bags and headed straight for the showers without even putting the tent up. It was the nicest site we stayed at we felt. We had a nice area with a picnic table, the showers and toilets were clean and you could even flush loo roll down the toilet! All of us have been in South America for so long that
we were looking around for the bin to throw it in. The showers were very welcome after three days of hiking in the same clothes!
That night we had soup and then a supernoodle feast (2 whole packets each!!) and even treated ourselves to a carton of highly overpriced wine! We had a late night, by which I mean we stayed up until about 10, as it was sunny and fairly warm. As soon as the sun went behind the clouds and then set though the temperature dropped and we quickly retreated into the tents.
Day four was to be the longest and toughest day. From the way they had made out at the talk it was supposed to be a nightmare, which may have been why we thought it wasn´t so bad because we were expecting way worse. There is no denying it was tough though. We were lucky in that we chose to take the left trail when it forked as it meant we had a slightly shorter walk and a gentler incline. It was still steep and hard work but we were rewarded with brilliant views and the sight of another group
we knew walking along the bottom, with a much steeper trail to come! When we reached the highest point of the trail we had a view right down the valley into which we were walking. Unfortunately the trail then descended all the way down to the bottom to Refugio Chileno which I couldn´t help but think that although good today it was tomorrows uphill! From there we walked a further hour to the free campsite Los Torres.
The campsite was right at the base of the mirador to view the famous "Torres" (towers). We set up camp and started dinner. Some people were suggesting going up to the mirador that night as it was clear in case the weather was bad the following day. Initially I didn´t want to go, as I was tired and it was another 45min hard climb just to get to the top. So most of the others went up while me, Laura and Ross as well as Mike, a French guy from the other group stayed behind. However I soon began to think it may have been a good idea to go as it was still very early and very cold. And with everyone
gone there wasn´t a whole lot to do. Laura and Ross had come to the same conclusion so we headed off.
It was hardgoing as it was literally climbing up rocks without a trail to follow for the majority of the way just orange markers at various points. It was also very cold and very windy. Especially at the top. For our effort we were greeted with the postcard picture view of the Torres - three granite towers and the lake below them. We didn´t stay up there long, just enough time to take some photos before heading down. Which was as difficult as going up. Although not so tiring you had to be so careful in case of loose scree and some of the bigger steps down.
Back in camp we stayed up for a while chatting in the food shelter, as the other group were cooking, before heading to bed. The decision whether or not to get up for the sunrise was left as weather dependent.
The alarm went of at 4.20 and all three of us heard the wind and rain and turned over and went back to sleep! I had
actually been awake a while, having trouble sleeping. I think it was knowing I might possibly have to get up as I slept much better after the alarm had gone off. We eventually got up not long after 8 and we ready to leave by about 10. However Mike had gone up to the mirador that morning, leaving around 6, and hadn´t returned by 10. As it is only 45minutes each way the most it should of taken was 2 hours. So obviously we were worried about where he was in case something had happened to him. Noone coming down off the mirador said they had seen anything though.
The Conaf ranger along with three other people went up to look for him. Waiting in the food shelter we saw the ranger coming runinng back down a bit later. All we got was lots of blood before he was on the radio and frantically calling for help. We found out later that what had happened was that the group had met someone coming down who had seen Mike with blood all over his face and so the ranger had come straight back down again while the others carried on
to find him. The other two girls in his group then went up the mountain taking a sleeping bag and hot water while we asked around for a doctor.
Over the next few hours the information coming down the mountain was sporadic and confusing. He had fallen and was right down by the edge of the lake but noone knew how he had got there and he couldn´t remember the fall. He had cuts on the back and front of his head as well as being generally battered and not wanting to walk.
The ranger was trying to arrange help to get him out and too hospital so there was talk of a helicopter. But then the helicopter couldn´t come because of the weather or the pressure or something so then they were going to stretcher him down. They wouldn´t do much without finding out if he had insurance which was difficult as noone had any id for him. Worryingly he said he had taken a small bag up with him which noone could find. However he did have a foil blanket that someone must have given him. It´s a horrible thought that someone may have robbed him
while he was injured and not even reported it.
Later in the day Rita and Ross who had been in the original search party came back down and gave us all the information they had. We then had a decision as to when to leave. It was still not decided how or when Mike was being brought down. The thing was we still had to trek to the bus stop in order to leave the park. We weren´t doing a whole lot to help except waiting for information. Rita and Michelle did go up again to take a rucksack up and handed it to one of the Chileans who were helping out running up and down with things. We eventually left around 3 and it had just been decided to stretcher Mike down. With six guys carrying him it was slow going. A day or two later we heard that he was taken down to the campsite and stayed there that night. The next day he was taken to Refugio Chileno from where he was helicoptered to the hospital in Punta Arenas. Apart from the head injury he also had some broken vertebrae (the number varying up to 4).
The latest news is that he is back in France and waiting to heal so he can start travelling again!
We managed to catch the last bus back to Puerto Natales, with time for a quick drink in the very posh hostel while we waited for it. Back in Natales by the time we handed our rental gear back in and showered it was gone midnight by the time we finally ate. Still we enjoyed our first decent meal in 5 days with not a piece of dried fruit in sight!
Apart from the accident, the trek was really enjoyable and a real challenge. (Took me several days to recover!) The scenery was amazing and like nothing I´ve ever seen. It seemed surreal, almost like a painting at times.
There are more photos below