Gone with the Wind at Torres del Paine

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February 10th 2010
Published: November 27th 2010
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What to eat...What to eat...What to eat...

How about some of that Patagonian BBQ lamb behind you?
As our travel guide, the South American Handbook, puts it: "Nothing prepares you for the spectacular beauty of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine." Well I won't dispute that, but I must add that nothing prepares you for the wind, the rain, and the rivers of ankle-deep rainwater flowing right along the trails. Weather is often tricky in this beautiful park in the Chilean Patagonia, but we had come during a very funky EL Niño year, and the summer weather was the worst it had been in years.

On Saturday, Feb. 6th we travelled by bus from Rio Gallegos, Argentina, westward across the Patagonian tundra to Puerto Natales, Chile, a quiet and pretty town on the edge of the Senoret Fjord. Our hostel was overbooked, so they shuttled us to hotel Niko's II. Hotel Niko's II was homey and comfortable - in fact, it was a home - presided over by the matron Niko.

That evening, we ate some pricey but great asado lamb at El Asador Patagonia. No mystery meat here - it was cut straight off of the lamb carcasses stretched taut on stakes leaned over the fire pit in the corner of the restaurant, Patagonian style! The next day was spent going through the town getting equipment and food for a possible five nights in the national park. There was some decent camping equipment to be rented, but we were a little disappointed in the lack of camping foods in the town, so we resorted to buying a heavy tin of beef stew and ramen noodles. The weather was terrible - wind and heavy rains - and we were cold every time we stepped outdoors, even in the warmest llama/alpaca wear we picked up in Cusco. We wondered whether it would be worth going into the park at all.

The next morning dawned bright and fair, and we were excited to get going. We were warm outside even without wearing our jackets. On our bus ride in, the clear skies gave us some great views of the three granite peaks, or torres (towers) for which the park is named. After checking in and getting our permits/tickets, our bus took us to one side of the Lago Pehoe near the Refugio Pudeto (a simple camping shelter), where we waited for the catamaran to take us across the lake to Refugio Pehoe. A sign of things to come,

...a wild cousin of the llama.
a wind squall came up and raised a huge spray from the lake, forcing everyone to move back from the shore.

Our plan was the "W" trail, so named for its approximate shape. Instead of a perfect "W", imagine a squarish "W" shaped by two square U's (double U, get it?) side by side. Now imagine the middle vertical segment is 2/3rds the height of the outside segments, and you have it! The "W" is printed on the earth's surface such that up is roughly northwest, left is roughly southwest. Arriving at Refugio Pehoe, we would start at the bottom right hand (the southwest) side of the "W". On day 1, we would hike up the right hand side of the "W" along Lago Grey (Gray Lake) to Refugio Grey. On day 2, we would hike back down and eastwards to Campamento Italiano on the bottom of the middle vertical segment, then up the middle segment through the beautiful Valle Frances to settle at Campamento Britanico. On Day 3, we would hike down the valley, then eastward to Refugio Torres in the bottom left hand side (the southeast) corner of the "W", at the main and most servicable entrance to the park. On Day 4, we would climb up the northeast edge of the "W" to Campemento Torres, at the base of the torres themselves - the prime real estate in the park. On day 5, we would return to Refugio Torres and then bus back to town. That was the plan. It called for about 70 km of hiking in 5 days. It was doable, at least on paper.

Ah plans... Our first obstacle we met was simply ourselves. After all the hiking in Boliva and Peru, we had gotten pretty soft in Argentina. Mixed grill in Salta, a gallon of wine in El Cafayate, and maybe six steak dinners in Buenos Aires. Needless to say, we were not in the best of shape. The catamaran dropped us off at around 2 pm, and we hit the trail northwards, leaving Lago Pehoe for the shores of Lago Grey. I was breathing heavy within the first few minutes. Then I noticed my pack. Between the heavy, cold weather gear, and relatively heavy food, we were carrying more weight than ever. The pack become a constant torment. In the next few days, my hiking would be limited less by tiredness in my legs, than pain in my shoulders caused by the pack. The weather gave us a demo of its potential early on. As we crossed from Lago Pehoe to Lago Grey, we were caught in a brief but intense rain. Then as we arrived at the shore of Lago Grey, a wind squall knocked Eva off her feet. Of course, we should have expected wind at that location since it was on our map. I am serious - the wind was so constant in some places they actually put it on our tourist map - here's the lake, there's the hill, and this spiral right in between them? ...that's wind.

We continued our hike up the side of the lake in relatively good weather. Looking out at the lake, we saw several blue icebergs that had broken off from the glacier at its northern end. We arrived at the campsite, Refugio Grey in late afternoon. The campsite was on a patch of sand next to the lake, and was crowded with maybe fifty other tents when we arrived. We made camp, then took a short trail to get a closer look at the glacier before nightfall.

We followed a trail to the glacier, and took some pictures along the way. We were going to follow the trail right to the glacier's edge, but a stiff wind blew up off the water. The wind was cold and difficult to walk against. Then it started raining - big wind-propelled droplets smacked into our faces. We hurried back to our tent. The weather was a lot better at the campsite, but it was still raining. We waited a little while for the rain to die down before eating our tin of beef stew under the cooking shelter where many other backpackers were huddled.

Settling in for the night, we discovered one terrible flaw in our seemly decent tent. The zipper on the tent fly malfunctioned - it kept splitting in the middle. The fly zipper gave us trouble throughout our trip. It never got better, and we never discovered a trick for closing it in one go, although at the same time it never fully broke. Sometimes we spent up to 30 minutes working on closing that fly. We would take turns getting frustrated with the other person ("You're not doing it right!"), and snatch the zipper away, only to struggle with it ourselves. Then we would despair, deciding it was over and the zipper was broken for good. Still, we kept trying since we simply HAD to close it. Eventually, on one miraculous pull, the zipper would close. Grateful, we'd always remember, HOW we closed it this time (pull fast, pull slow, pull on both zipper tabs, pull on inside tab alone etc.), but we never discerned a procedure for closing that would always, or even sometimes, work. The successful zipper pulls were completely random.

We got the zipper closed that night, hoping we would have better luck with it throughout the trip. Eva was dismayed at how little room we had in the the tent. She had been skeptical of the tent when we got it, and argued for a bigger one. I saw her point, but even this tiny tent was heavy enough. We found another fault with our tent the next morning. There were two pools of rainwater at the bottom corners. A heavy fleece sweater that I had rented was now soaked, and it would be useless weight that I would carry pointlessly for the rest of the backpacking trip.

We rose a little late and had a long breakfast in the cooking shelter before breaking camp. We set out down the northeast arm of the "W" and back to Refugio Pehoe. It rained intermittently, sometimes hard, throughout the hike. The wind was even worse than the first day. We later learned it was gusting up to 120 km/hr. But it wasn't just a powerful wind; it was crafty. Like a boxer, it would feign right and throw left. Many a time, we were caught leaning one way into the wind when it would reverse and catch us and our big backpacks on the other side. Sometimes we recovered, but sometimes we went down.

We made it back to Refugio Pehoe where we had originally set out the day before. According to the plan, we had only completed half of the day's hiking. Our clock gave us the unbelievable hour of 5 in the afternoon. We had made poor progress, and a further 7 km hike to the next campground was not an option. So we planned to settle there for the night.

Now Refugio Pehoe is not a bad place to shelter from the weather. Amongst rougher, camper amenities, it featured a bonafide hotel and a restuarant. The hotel was out of the question (booked up, plus pricey), but I left Eva in the restuarant while I set up our tent and repaired its leaks with duct tape. The weather cooperated brilliantly (it poured) while I patched up the holes and seams, and checked for more leaks. We decided to forgo camp food that night and enjoy the turkey dinner at the restuarant. We met a nice couple from Spain who were visiting her family in Chile. El Niño had broken their hearts. Everywhere they went in Chile, the weather was terrible - the worst weather the locals had seen in years. They had planned on doing the same trek that we were, but they were giving up, and getting out of the park later that day. We wondered if we might quit ourselves.

The night's weather was bad - very rainy and more windy than the first night. The tent did okay. It did not leak. Also, it survived the battering of the wind - not breaking, but bending unbelievably. Every strong gust flattened the cold wet canvass down on my face.

The next morning was wet, windy, and foggy. We lingered over our breakfast in the cooking shelter, warm and humid from the press of other campers. We met a pair of charming young Chilean ladies, students from the capital, "enjoying" their vacation in one of their country's most famous parks. Their English was pretty good. One of them had been through a car accident that had put her in a coma. Irrelevant, but interesting none the less.

We set out for the middle of the 'W', hoping to make up some ground and get back on our plan. The hiking this day was worse than before. It was still raining and still windy. In addition, previous floods had put tons of water on our trail. Sometimes the water flowed across our path, but many time it flowed right through it, and we had to walk carefully through the streams, trying to keep our boots try. Of course we failed to keep dry, and we were soaked head to foot. Our thin travel pants were dripping wet, clinging to our legs, and were very cold. I wished I was wearing jeans.

We made it to the middle of the W, Campamento Italiano, about 4 in the afternoon. We were taking about twice as long to hike as we had originally planned (according to the hiking times on the map). I was shivering, and my fingers were numb. Eva did not look any better. We were faced with three options: A.) continue as planned up the 'scenic' Valle Frances, which was completey covered in fog, B.) continue our trek eastwards to the next campground 5 km away, or C.) set up camp immediately and see what tomorrow brings. Option A of course seemed really dumb at the time. Eva was interested in moving on (option B), but I was concerned about our health, and the chance of getting caught in the dark. On top of everything else, my shoulders were in some real pain from carrying the pack. We set up the tent, got inside, and managed to warm up and avoid frostbite. Without meaning to do so, we both feel asleep. It was nearing dark when we woke up again. We scrambled to get a quick supper cooked - which involved collecting water from the nearby stream and cooking angel hair pasta with tomato sauce in the muddy but dry cooking shelter - and then went straight back to bed, wondering what tomorrow would bring. Though I didn't tell Eva, I thought that we may have to walk back to Refugio Pehoe the next day to catch the catamaran and cut our trip short.

Luckily, we finally got a break in the weather the next morning. The skies were clear, bright, and windless. Due to lack of time and extra supplies (food & dry clothing), we decided to skip the Valle Frances, the middle part of the "W." However, with our spirits high, we eagerly started knocking off the 16 km to Refugio Torres. Our clothes dried on our bodies as we walked, and we were surprised by a new pleasure: Scenery! Stuff to look at! We had almost forgotten about scenery in the fog of the previous day, but of course it was the main reason we went to the park in the first place. Now, here it was! Snow-capped peaks! Towering granite walls! The beautiful shores of Lago Nordenskjol! Near the end of the trek, we caught our first glimpse of the Torres since we came to the park four days ago. We pitched our tent in a large grassy field at Refugio Torres, right below the Torres themselves, and enjoyed the only pleasant evening we had the whole trip.

We went to bed hoping to complete our trip with a quick hike, without gear, to the base of the Torres the next day. We'd have to get going by 6:30 am to make it back for the 2 pm bus. I was awake pretty early, but didn't have the heart to wake Eva. She finally stirred around 7:30 am. Her ankle, the achilles to be exact, was bothering her terribly. She could barely walk at first, and hiking a steep trail was clearly out of the question. We did an easy and enjoyable 'nature walk' near our campground instead, with a boil-up by the stream for lunch. We were ready and satisfied to leave the park as we headed back to town that afternoon. In the end, the planned "W" hike was more of an "L."

The next morning, we caught the seven-hour bus ride to our next destination, El Calafate, Argentina.

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


What's for dinner?What's for dinner?
What's for dinner?

Cooking by headlight in the cooking shelter.
The TorresThe Torres
The Torres

which we unfortunately never reached.

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