Edit Blog Post
Published: March 7th 2019
It is a sad fact of life that as I have got older I have developed a greater fear of heights. I stood a few steps on to the narrow suspension bridge as it swung above the steep ravine. The cable sides look no more than knee high from my warped perspective. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on. I smiled as best I could for Jane to take a photo. I knew it was irrational and I had to cross this bridge to get the glacier ‘mirador’ on the other side. I bent my knees to keep lower and focused on the bridge ahead. Jane waited patiently at the end. Half way across I started to hum and the demons in my brain seem to start to dissipate. I moved on to the old Billy Joel song ‘Your My Home’ and my confidence improved with every step. Clearly singing in tune was not a requirement.
It was definitely worth reaching the other side. The Grey glacier stretched out before us bathed in the sunshine, snow capped mountains and blue sky completing the backdrop. The icebergs that had broken off the front were a luminescence pale blue floating in
the lake like uncut gems. We were on day 2 of our 5 day hike in Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile. It is world famous and there were hikers from all over the world as well as many locals taking on the challenge. The younger ambitious ones were carrying all their camping gear and food and walking the 9 day ‘O’ circuit. This was pioneered by the British climber John Gregory and two local guides in 1976 and he now has the key pass above the Grey glacier named after him. We had opted for the more modest ‘W’ trek which takes you round the Southern side of the Paine mountain range and had arranged full board at all the refugios where were stayed. This meant we could restrict ourselves to full day packs to carry everything we needed for the hike.
The Park is extremely popular and is very difficult to book without an agency’s support. Those who had booked campsites themselves had booked around September last year. The agencies have already reserved their places for next year’s season. We did not book anything until January and the only option was to use an agency.
Even then it took several days to secure convenient dates at all the refugios. We also camped one night. Nothing is cheap because everyone knows that they have a captive audience and demand exceeds supply. We have no complaints about the agency, Dittmar Adventures, we used. They set out a clear itinerary and the paths are so well laid out there is no need for a guide.
The park is in the middle of nowhere and we got there by a 2.5hour bus ride from Puerto Natales, the local town now established to service the Park’s visitors. A catamaran ferry delivered us across one of the many glacial lakes to Paine Grande the bottom left corner of the ‘W’ around lunchtime. We had a very pleasant 11km walk up to the ‘Grey’ Refugio. To be clear, they are not really mountain refuges. They are very well-equipped hostels serving full breakfasts and three course dinners. The dorm beds are remarkably comfortable, extremely clean and long enough to accommodate me. The bathrooms and showers are more than adequate. Grey was probably the best refugio of the lot. It had a superb front deck. We sat talking to fellow hikers and gazed
up to see a condor hovering high up above the towering mountain in front of us.
The next morning it was an easy walk up the Grey glacier ‘mirador’ (the two suspension bridges excluded) without packs. We return to the refugio for an excellent lunch and picked up our rucksacks for the walk back to Paine Grande. (Paine, by the way, is pronounced PIE-nay and comes from the local Tehuelche Indian word for ‘blue’. It is not the name of some notable British explorer as I had speculated.) Its easy accessibility makes Paine Grande a bustling centre. We were staying the night in one the tents for hire and were provided with warm sleeping bags. We were lucky that the notorious wind, which we experienced on most days we had been in the Terra del Fuego region, abated as it did for our whole time in the Park. The skies were clear and the cathedral peaks towered above us.
By the end of the night I had been afflicted with a bout of gout in my right ankle. Jane was not impressed that I had left all my medication back at the hostel in Puerto Natales. We had
not been drinking the expensive red wine on offer so I have no idea what brought it on. I had no choice and simply had to walk the 12km to our next refugio, Cuernos, further along the edge of Nordernskjold lake. My walking poles made reasonable crutches and it was lucky the next two days were the easiest hiking days. Midway we stopped at Campo Italiano where the central prong of the ‘W’ takes you up the French valley surrounded by the high peaks of the range and the booming thunder of the small avalanches breaking off from the numerous glaciers and snow fields. This was too much for my ankle so Jane shot up the to the ‘French lookout’ on her own while I people-watched hikers perplexing over broken tent poles and nursing sore knees. On the final stage to Cuernos we were very fortunate to see a pair of stocky Huemul deer, indigenous to the area and, we later learnt, one of only 40 pairs in the Park.
The next day my gout pain had subsided somewhat. The peaks loomed to our left, the echo of avalanches puncturing the tranquillity and to our right glacial lakes spread out into the distance. It was like a Geography textbook laid out before us: sculpted U shape valleys, interlocking spurs and curving strata pierced by quartz intrusions at every turn. Our last refugio in the park was Torres next to the 5 star hotel at the bottom left of the ‘W’. We were amused by a caracara, which I can only describe as looking and acting like a cross between an eagle and chicken, jumping at the window next to our table in the café.
We had saved the toughest walk for the last day: an 8 hour climb to the base of the Torres del Paine and back. By now I was walking much better and we could leave our packs at the hostel. The paths were good, although eroded on the lower sections, and after 2 hours we stopped for a break at the Refugio Chileno. We had elected to start at 7.45am which meant we kept ahead of most walkers, swelled in this section by day trippers, who ate a more leisurely breakfast. At Refugio Chileno we met the returning mad souls who has started at 3am in the vain hope of catching the sunrise light on the towers. Like on most days they were not in luck. We did see the sun on the peaks briefly as we rested at Chileno on the way up. By the time we had completed the steep climb to the pale blue glacial tarn we were in swirling snow. We applied all our layers and sheltered behind a boulder to eat our sandwiches. It was an amazing sight: a huge steep amphitheatre of rock surrounded by razor pointed towers of granite combing the swirling clouds.
We waited for 30 minutes for the weather to change and then the cold and icy snow drove us down to welcome hot tea at Chileno. By the time we reached the valley we back in blue skies and looking back we could see the peaks were still deep in the clouds.
We were tired! We had completed around 50 miles/80 km over the 5 days and celebrated with pizza and beer before getting the bus back to Puerto Natales as darkness fell.
Tot: 0.303s; Tpl: 0.016s; cc: 14; qc: 64; dbt: 0.0128s; 1; m:saturn w:www (126.96.36.199); sld: 1;
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