Published: June 26th 2009March 5th 2009
To be honest there weren't many lows... apart from the fifth day when I had a slight sense of humour failure but more on that later!
From the little I'd seen of Patagonia the scenery was stunning and the drive from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park was no different - distant snow capped peaks, Guanaco (lowland wild Llamas) munching on grass by the roadside, flamingos wading at the waters edge and circling on the thermals high above, Condors. The four of us, me, Eamo, Ann and Gordon had come to do the W trek, the route of which, unsurprisingly, follows the shape of a W (rather than the slightly more hard core 'Full circuit' or 'Q loop'). Contrary to advice in the guide books though we'd chosen to walk from East to West... the books tell you the views are better in the other direction plus the westerly winds help you along. Granted we did spend one day battling 90kmph winds (both hard work and quite entertaining... apart from the fact we were on a ridge top at the time which made it all rather scary) but that was only one day. As to the views -
they were far better the way we walked! We also opted to do it the 'flash packer' way, now also know as the 'Credit Crunched' option (because those staying in Refugio's vs camping seemed to have a higher tendency to have been 'credit crunched') and stayed in Refugio's rather than camping - it might sound like the wimpy option but hot shows, a bed and not having to do the washing up after a long days hiking was great! We were also doing it the tortoise way - we met one couple who'd done the 'W' in 3 days. Maybe they had wings, maybe than ran the whole way, or just didn't stop to see anything.... we were taking a slightly more leisurely 7 days....
Day 1 - To Grande Central
Today was our 'warm up' day.... we hiked from where the bus dropped us off to Grande Central, our Refugio for the night - the sum total of about 2 hours walking and most of that was flat. Well, we didn't want to over do it on the first day! Being so close to the park entrance (and I'll add that there was another bus
that could have taken us to the Refugio door which we opted not to take... we were v chuffed with ourselves about that) a lot of 'day trippers' also stay here - easy to spot by the fact they arrive pulling a suitcase! Once we'd checked in we went off to explore, aiming for a lake that a few wrong turns later we never quite made it too - granted it didn't bode too well for the next week but it gave me plenty of opportunity to remember how much I hate river crossings (not good given the days to come).
Day 2 - Torres Central to Los Chilenos
Our first proper day of hiking, so of course it didn't take long for the rain to start! Fortunately it turned out to be a short downpour that lasted for about as long as it took me to huff and puff my way to the top of the first hill (clearly spending my days pottering around towns and cities for the last 6 months wasn't quite the preparation needed!). Los Chilenos was a smaller, more basic but friendlier hostel than Grande Central and having checked in we left
our big packs behind and set off again. The weather was good (i.e. it wasn't raining) so we decided to head for the Torres themselves. An hour walking alongside the river through lush green forest was the calm before the storm.. a 45 minute hike up and up and up and up followed, first over boulders and then a steep scree slope that had us going 3 steps forward 2 steps back, sometimes more. Finally we reached the top and spent the next 45 mins sat just below the ridge line, looking at the peaks rising high above, the still waters of the milky green lake at their feet and waited for the cloud to clear... on all 3 peaks at the same time. That didn't seem like too much to ask but we waited and waited and waited and finally, feeling slightly ice cube like after so long sat being blasted by an icy wind, we headed down. We'd slipped and skidded our way about halfway down when we turned to look at the view one last time.... and yup, sure enough the cloud had cleared. Grrr. Needless to say none of us were tempted to run back up
just to take that perfect picture!
Day 3 - Los Chilenos to Grande Central
Up early we headed back up the valley in the direction we'd been yesterday afternoon, but rather than walking up to the peaks again we continued on in search of what seemed to be an increasingly elusive Silent Valley, along a route that involved far too many river crossing for my liking... and ones that involved balancing on narrow logs at that! We clambered over huge boulders, found our way by spotting path markers that others had left before us, added a few more of our own and Eamo pushed on ahead to see how far the path went. We met him on his way back down, the increasingly vertical climb having become a little too adventurous even for him, so we all turned around and headed back to the hostel, grabbed our bags and headed back to Grande Central.
Day 4 - Torres Central to Los Cuernos
According to the map today was supposed to be a nice short walk - 11km or about 4 hours. The map lies!!! Maybe if you sprinted the whole way 4
hours was feasible and granted we did make one or quite a few photo stops along the way but really!!! 6 hours after starting me, Ann and Gordo finally reached Los Cuernos having had a great day but slightly concerned about how long tomorrows 22km was going to take! The views had been amazing - deep blue lakes, snow capped mountains and glaciers peaking above the green hills in the distance and bushes with bright red flowers.
Day 5 - Los Cuernos to Paine Grande
Today was our one really long day and up until yesterday we'd been expecting it to take about 11 hours... now we weren't so sure. But the thought of arriving in the dark really wasn't a thrilling one and in the end we walked it pretty much to time. I've walked similar distances lots of times before and enjoyed it. Today though I had a sense of humour failure.... several times over. I discovered I'm a bit of a fair weather walker.... walking for hours on end in torrential rain that cuts you from every direction (including horizontally which I found particularly rude!) really didn't do it for me. Add on
that any view was obscured by cloud for most of the day and yup, I wasn't a happy bunny.
The route took us up the middle of the 'W' along the French Valley. We reached Camp Italiano easily enough and leaving our backpacks behind we jumped, hopped and stumbled our way up a boulder field, through a forest to a ridge where, wow, we got hit full force by the wind. Seriously it was strong enough to knock you off your feet! The views were good though, not of the cloud that increasingly covered the way we'd come, but of the snow covered slopes and glaciers opposite. Eamo and I arrived just in time to watch a huge avalanche happen. Walking up the valley we'd heard the loud thunderous noise that announces each avalanche several times but actually seeing it happen was amazing - you could just feel the power of it.
I reached Camp Britannica at the end of the valley having made a complete meal out of a forest walk that really should have been easy. My legs had completely run out of energy and it felt like I'd hit several walls, one straight after the
other. But I was really touched by the fact that of the 5 people who passed me whilst I was sat on my own with my shoes off nursing my blistering feet, all of them stopped to ask if I was OK or needed help. Needless to say I was very pleased to meet a couple coming down from the view point who told me it was only 10minutes away and not the hour I was expecting! I arrived just in time to take a few quick pictures before the cloud and rain came in, completely obscuring the peaks I'd been looking at only seconds before. And that was it for the rest of the day. Rain, rain, wind, rain, wind, rain, over it already. But later that afternoon as I warmed up with a hot shower at Paine Grande I felt really sorry for all the poor campers coming in who tried their luck at getting a bed in the Refugio only to be told it was full.. setting up a soggy tent in the rain wasn't an appealing thought.
Day 6 - Paine Grande to Lago Grey
On the way out of Paine Grande we
passed a sign with the days weather report... winds of up to 90kmph and the direction was such that mostly we'd be walking into it. Oh joy. And when we reached the ridge, oh my god! It was a battle just to stay upright! Much of the day was spent going up, then down, then up, then down, then up... But the views more than made up for the pain! Lakes dotted with the occasional ice berg broken off from the glacier, sunshine, lush green vegetation and no rain! We dropped our bags at the small Refugio at Lago Grey (my personal favourite, especially after the much larger Paine Grande which had been a disappointment) and after a short tea break headed out again up the path to the glacier - huge and beautiful, with deep indigo blue crevices. We scrambled up some rocks and sat glacier watching until the rain finally came, signalling that it was time to retreat to the warmth of the Refugio.
Day 7 - Lago Grey to Puerto Natales
Yesterdays 11km had taken longer than expected and concerned that we might not make it back to Paine Grande for the noon boat
(which would get us back to Puerto Natales at a sensible time...the next one would see us there about 10pm) we started out early, with Rob, Gordo and Eamo hanging back to pick up the lunches and me Ann and Linda heading up the advance party. With none (well, relatively few) of the photo breaks or view stops that we'd had yesterday we absolutely stormed it, reaching the dock with an hour to spare and plenty of time to lie in the sunshine before the boat arrived. The only real annoyance of the day was that having spent most of yesterday walking into a full on head wind the promised 70kmph winds that were going to speed us all the way back to the dock never materialised :0)
Back in Puerto Natales we opted to change plans and spend an extra day chilling out in town (and making most of the fantastic veggie restaurant there) rather than rushing straight for El Calafate in Argentina as we'd originally planned. Next up, glaciers, orcas and the day I released that as a cyclist I make a great walker... ;0)
There are more photos below