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Published: February 10th 2020
R: Today was our first big walk. With alarms set to 6am, we were up and moving. Chef had prepared us a huge breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon with toast, accompanied by yoghurts and much strong coffee in a large kettle which was resting in the camp fire. For the next few days we would be provided with lunch options before we set off for hikes and a table had been set up in one of the lean-to shelters on the campsite with bread rolls, sliced meat, cheese, salad and huge bowls of smashed avocados and mayonnaise - a make your own sandwich buffet. Plus trail mix, chocolate and fruit. The amount of avocados in the bowl in the UK would have cost about £30 - but in South America, it was probably a much smaller amount.
We headed off in the truck up to the Laguna Amarga ranger station and visitors centre and then on to the Las Torres hotel. We started our walk from here. Today we were heading up to the Mirador (view point) Las Torres (Of the towers) which gives you an indication of what we were going to see. The Torres del Paine are
three large rock formations that stick out of the landscape like crooked teeth. The walk started easy so we could warm our legs up, over a boggy bit of land that ran through the valley, past a very flash looking hotel that the guide informed me was for "people who like the views, but not the climbs". There is actually quite a lot of development at Las Torres, with a little restaurant and even a corner shop!. Its part of one of the "big treks" of Patagonia - the "W" which is a very popular long distance, multi day hike.
We started to see "who was who" in terms of our hiking abilities. There were some people in the group who had never hiked before, and had no idea how good they would be. It amazed me that the first time someone went hiking, that they would choose Patagonia as the destination. We headed through the valley and crossed a tiny rickety bridge which had a sign on it stating "only two persons at one time" - a warning we took seriously as a torrent of icy grey water ran below it straight down from the ice sheet above.
Windy Gap and Pass
And it certainly was!
Then the incline started, and the group started to spread out. We went up a grey, gravel path with various stops, and fantastic views of TdP and its various lakes spreading out behind us, which I used the stop times to admire. The weather at this point was fairly grey, windy with some break through of sun here and there.
We split the group, with those of us used to this kind of hiking heading forward at a quicker pace with one guide, and the slower ones, heading up at a slower pace. The incline continued now and we headed up to "Windy Gap" which was a saddle before leading down into a river valley. I can confirm that it lives up to its name! The route is plyed by caravans of horses as there is no mains gas or supplies this far up, but there are various lodges. We were on our way to Chileno Lodge, which offers shelter for those on the longer hikes, which need supplies from the valleys. The horses bring up supplies for those who stay up in the mountains with a sort of Gaucho leading the pack. We stopped briefly here to re-fill
on water, use the loo for 500 pesos (outrageous!) and have a brief rest. Despite me having bought a new water filtration bottle for this trip, the water coming off the mountains is safe, cold and clean and delicious, though a bit high in mineral content. So there was a brief moment where we nominated a member of the "advanced group" to wade down to the river bank and dip all our bottles into the river. Onward...
The next stage was about 1.5 hours of woodland on a gentle to moderate incline. It was getting chillier now as we got higher and closer to the snow line. As we got to the snow line we found the upper ranger station where the rangers were able to shut the upper path if needed for safety - thankfully they had not done this today. There were toilets here as well so some members of the group availed themselves of that and then we pressed on. The incline now became much steeper as we headed up and underfoot turned first to slush, then to snow, and then to compacted ice, making walking much more challenging. It also became very narrow meaning you
were sharing your space often with people on their way back down. There was also some degree of clambering as you went up, with people steadying themselves on the large boulders to prevent them slipping off the mountain. The views back were incredible as we could now see across the snow capped mountains back own to the green of the valley. This last bit took about an hour, despite being very short distance wise. Suddenly, a small partially frozen lake appeared, framed by the majestic Torres del Paine, which were partially shrouded in cloud! We had made it. We stood in awe of the Torres for some time, also hoping for that picture postcard moment where all three towers were visible, but the most we got was 2 and a half - see photos!
Of course it was now getting cold and the sun was yet to make an appearance so we couldn't linger for ever and sadly had to start our way back down. This would be back via the same route, which is always a bit sad in my book, but with views like this - who cares. We carefully picked our way back down and I
turned to see one of our group lose her balance on the ice and topple over - her face just centimeters from a large rock before she stopped herself falling with her arms. She hurt her wrists but it could have been so much worse! After checking she was ok, we headed back down. A gentle snow started to fall on us as we did and then the wind got up. This was no time to stop for lunch - but I was so hungry, and love Avocado sandwiches so much, so a few of us stopped while others pressed ahead. We passed the second half of our group on the way back down - the ones who were a little less certain about hiking, but assured them the last challenging bit was worth the effort! The group had spread out more and I had ended up with Sergio, the swiss guy, who had about the same walking speed as me. Trying not to discuss Brexit at this point we chatted all the way down about all the hikes we had done before, and I felt like I was talking to a member of the Swiss national tourism board as
he told me about all the amazing things near his home.
As we approached Windy Pass, we found Kevin, the Canadian, a member of our social section of the group who had been struggling with the hiking. He had not made it up to the steep incline and had started his way back down. From the top of another hill, we found one of our guides watching him from a distance, waiting for him to make sure he got where he was going. The wind was now so strong that it was whipping up dust and sand from the trail and slamming it into our faces - it felt like we were being exfoliated as we walked! There were also some others that had turned around who we overtook on the way back down. While this sounds a bit unfriendly, we were all on this trip together but all had our own goals and there was no expectation to keep the group all together, the path was not hard to navigate and it was fine to walk at your own pace. So people did. By now, the sun was out, it was warm and I had to strip off
a few layers - as they say in Patagonia, you get all 4 seasons in one day. Now, we had amazing views all over the south of the national park. We gathered together at the visitors centre / café at the base of the walk - where I obtained a well deserved Austral Patagonia beer and my typical empanada while we waited for the others to arrive. I wasn't one of the first back, but was pretty close and we had to wait about an hour for the final few - while we did a South American grey fox wandered past, looking for the end of my empanada! No chance there...
There is no mobile signal in the park, so I took the opportunity to spend 1 USD to get 5 mins of wifi at the café, so I could share some pictures of the amazing scenery we had seen today - then felt very dirty for having connected, being so happy to be disconnected up until now. Then didn't feel so bad as the accountant of the group tucked into his work emails and started firing off replies.
We bussed back to the campsite and it was
hot showers all round - these weren't the cleanest it has to be said, but they were at least warming. Dinner tonight was a delicious chicken and rice that came with lashings of hot sauce. Yum. By now one of the group had left - she was vegan and was unhappy with the vegan option the chef was able to make. I was actually pretty impressed he did a vegan option - but unfortunately she didn't seem to like vegetables. I don't blame the chef for making assumptions!
The weather was cold and windy again, so after a beer or two from the cooler on the bus, it was early to bed amid the Patagonian wind again - it was a noisy night - but earplugs helped!
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