Quite possibly the best hike in the world... ever

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March 29th 2012
Published: April 6th 2012
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a view worth trekking fora view worth trekking fora view worth trekking for

Las Torres and the Cerro Nido de Condor with Laguna Los Torres in the foreground
When I was thirteen, my parents took me to Tuscany. In between the noisy chaos of Florence and the gravity-challenging architecture of Pisa, we went to a little village in the Apennines on the strength of my mother’s curiosity in Milton’s choice of simile, “Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks of Vallombrosa”. If he had written “as glorious as autumnal leaves in Patagonia”, would we have gone there instead, I found myself wondering last week. For surely there is no more wonderful palate of natural colours above sea level than this, the gold, bronze, flame-orange, scarlet, pink and red of the lenga and the ñire, set against the bare rock, snow and glacial blues of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, a reward only for those prepared to invest a couple of days walking the park’s trails. New England Fall, you’re so yesterday!

It must be said that the beginning of the park’s ‘W’ trek was a little less spectacular, although arguably still dramatic but in a more grisly fashion. A fire just after Christmas had caused more than 28,000 hectares of devastation, and this land of limited rainfall was still showing few signs of recovery even now,
something to crow aboutsomething to crow aboutsomething to crow about

crested caracaras, Acampar Lago Pehoé
three months’ later. Allegedly, a hiker burning toilet roll was to blame. The last time something similar happened, the hiker’s own country – the Czech Republic – had felt so embarrassed, it had stepped in to help fund the ensuing conservation and repair work, or so the story goes. As Sarah and I started out on the trek up to Glacier Grey in the shadow of a valley yet to be touched by the morning’s sun, I looked around at the torched landscape, incredulous at what the scope and intensity of the fire must have been, reaching even patchy scrub high up the scree slopes on either side. For the first couple of hours we were also fighting a razor-sharp wind that whistled down the valley and through our many layers of clothing. It felt more like an endurance test than the outset of one of the world’s great hikes.

An hour and a half, a laguna and a second valley-climb later, we had our first reward, a magical view over the northern end of the aquamarine Lago Grey and up to the icy slopes of Glacier Grey, as it languidly flows down either side of Nunatak island. With near-perfect blue skies, a temporary respite from the wind, and the promise of sun to brighten our still-shadowed side of the valley, we grinned at each other. It was going to be a good day.

The track runs parallel and close to the lakeshore, but only gave us tantalising glimpses of the view beyond as it slowly led us through the incinerated woodland and over crystal-clear streams of delicious ice-cold water to the welcome wind-free sun-trap of Refugio Grey’s veranda. A little more than three hours in, we happily stripped off outer layers and basked, lizard-like, in the unexpected warmth. For now, we contented ourselves with the “box lunch” from the previous night’s hostelry, the Mountain Lodge Paine Grande, but we promised ourselves hot chocolate back here in a couple of hours’ time, before we started our return journey.

Sarah and I had only decided to do the whole of the ‘W’ trek a couple of days’ earlier. My one criticism of the Dragoman trip to date is the haphazard way that they dealt with disseminating information about, and making arrangements for, this trek which, after all, is THE reason to skedaddle over the border from Argentina into
don't burn your toilet paperdon't burn your toilet paperdon't burn your toilet paper

a trekker's inadvertent waste disposal caused 18,000 ha of damage in December
Chilean Patagonia at this particular point. (Just to be clear, I’m making absolutely no criticism of our own fantastic tour leaders: the problem goes higher than them.) Of course I don’t mind making my own bookings, but it’s that much harder when the dates are subject to change for reasons outside my control, but within Dragoman’s, and when we were, by definition, already on the road, with only sporadic and limited email access. To do the ‘W’ – so-called, unoriginally, because of the shape of the combined elements of the trek – usually requires four days, and therefore three nights’ accommodation: at the base of both “V”s, and either near the peak of the central section or just to the east of it. Accommodation ranges from full-board, dorm-style hostels with bedding provided, to fully DIY and self-catered camping, with various possibilities in-between. Due to a misunderstanding, I had thought that Jo and I couldn’t get accommodation for the third night, so, in common with Sarah, we had expected to do what Anki nicknamed “the ‘V’ and the ‘I’” (i.e., three days’ worth of the trail covering the left-hand ‘V’ of the ‘W’ and the right-hand stroke of the ‘W’). By
campsite with a viewcampsite with a viewcampsite with a view

the Cuernos del Paine from Acampar Lago Pehoé
contrast, Stuart had efficiently booked himself and Ross top-of-the-range accommodation throughout, but, at the last minute, they decided to scamper round the full ‘Paine Circuit’, a distance of 120 km which the guidebooks usually recommend taking 7-12 days to do. (To the boys’ huge credit, they did it within the 4½ days we were there, arriving back on schedule and not noticeably the worse for wear despite at least one 14-hour trekking day.) In the meantime, Stuart’s original set of bookings was up for grabs. Jo had decided she didn’t fancy doing more than maybe a day or two on the trails, but Sarah and I needed no persuading, even if I did have to jettison one of our already-paid-for nights’ accommodation. After my warm-up solo day’s hike in the Fitz Roy Range on the northern side of Los Glaciares National Park a few days’ earlier, I was keen for the challenge.

Sarah turned out to be the perfect trekking companion. After spending so much time recently with a new-to-travelling teenager, I found it a welcome change to be with someone who is entirely self-sufficient, self-contained and confident. It was wryly amusing to find myself with the one person

sunset over Cerro Paine Grande from Mountain Lodge Paine Grande
on the truck who is so similar to me in terms of her background. Sarah is a fellow lawyer – a New York litigator – who decided last year that she’d had enough of the grindstone, and that life was worth more than the hour-crunching minutiae of court procedure and legal research. She’s well-travelled and open-minded; we had no shortage of things to talk – and laugh – about as we persuaded our weary limbs to tramp the final kilometres to the viewpoint or a welcome cold beer. (On several occasions, our fellow trekkers said they heard our giggles long before we hove into view!)

That first day we’d intended to take gently… but that’s not something either of us is very good at doing, particularly when there’s just one more “mirador” round the corner. Tearing ourselves away from our lizard-ing hotspot, we decided to trek on for another hour before turning back. But then we ran into Katja who had camped the first night at Refugio Grey, and she told us of the views from the next campsite, Campamento Los Guardas, and from another spot a little further on from there. We looked at each other. With Katja’s time estimates – half those on the map – we could certainly make Los Guardas without delaying ourselves more than another 90 minutes or so overall. It’d be rude not to, wouldn’t it? We waved goodbye to Katja and stepped our pace up a gear. We didn’t get back to the lodge until 7.30 pm, meaning that we had had a good 10½ hours’ trekking on the first day (not to mention covering more than 30 km), but it was well worth the extra schlep. Just beyond the Campamento is a turn-off to a mirador giving outstanding views over the tongue of the eastern side of Glacier Grey as it pokes out into the eponymous lake. The weather was, if anything, even more perfect than it had been earlier, the clouds now lifting off distant snow-peaked Andes, and we could see into the crinkled crevasses of the glacier below us. Further down the lake, tiny icebergs floated, the water lapping them into beautiful curves and unexpectedly translucent deep-blues. A thunderous rumble and a puff of white at the far end of the lake was the icing on the cake of our day: the glacier had calved and we’d seen it!
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Glacier Grey

After another side-tracking mirador or two, we reluctantly decided to forego Refugio Grey’s hot chocolate, and set our course for the Mountain Lodge Paine Grande, resolving not to allow ourselves to be further distracted, however beautiful our surroundings. But we hadn’t taken into account a delightful pair of Magellanic woodpeckers (“pájaros carpinteros”, the gorgeous Spanish translation) just over an hour later. My attention was attracted by the familiar tap-tap-tap of beak on wood, so I paused, scanning the woodland around me. We were near the edge of December’s devastation, with both scorched and untouched trees around us. I soon spotted the busy culprit and, without taking my eyes off the bird, gestured to Sarah to come back when I heard her footsteps pause. The female woodpecker was alternately chirping and tapping; her mate, bright red head easy to spot, seemed unconcerned about the lip she might have been giving him, intent only on tracking down whatever insects the bark was prepared to disgorge. They flitted between trees and helpfully stopped to work on one nearer to us. We were enchanted. At one point I heard voices along the track and my heart sank. Surely noisy hikers would scare away the birds? But the two French lads had followed our line of sight and quickly fell silent, creeping closer to the spectacle with cameras to the ready. We all exchanged happy smiles.

Such was day one of the ‘W’. It couldn’t get better than this, surely?

At lunchtime the next day, gazing at the jagged grey peaks around us and the fantastic panoply of autumnal shades below, I couldn’t help feeling that the previous day’s blues of lake and glacier were mundane by comparison. This really was something special. Here. Now. The first part of the walk, from the lodge to Campamento Italiano, had been pretty, with views back to Lago Pehoé, the swaying wooden bridge over Río del Francés, and the towering peaks above us. But it was only after we started to climb up the further section of the Valle del Francés itself that the sheer magnificence of our surroundings almost silenced us. The track up the valley is marked by pink ribbons and orange posts or paint splodges, and it winds uncertainly over boulders, up muddy slopes and across old river beds and scree slopes. To our left towered Cerro Paine Grande, the higher reaches of its shawl, Glacier del Francés, breaking off sporadically with a distant roar. Below us the river bubbled out busily from the moraine-encrusted edge of the glacier. But it was the vegetation through which we were now walking, which covered the lower parts of the mountain slopes all around this dramatic valley, that really stole our hearts and superlatives. The trees here are all from the beech family, the high-deciduous beech (lenga) and the low-deciduous beech (ñire), as well as a few of an evergreen variety. Both the lenga and the ñire have tiny leaves, each of which seems to change colour independently of those around it. One tree even possessed alternate branches of fully-reddened and still-green leaves. The effect, particularly on an overcast day and against the monochrome snow and rock, was extraordinary. (If anything, it was even more dramatic a week later in Ushuaia, the leaves benefiting from being just a little further south and a few days’ further advanced.) Cameras couldn’t do it justice: we munched our lunch and drank in our surroundings.

But it was cold on top of the rocky pinnacle where the path ends, so we turned tail and scrambled our way back down the valley. At Campamento Italiano we collected the overnight kit that Katja had kindly let us leave in her tent, and paused for a quick chocolate break. We’d been ridiculously excited to find Snickers and Twix bars in the shop at ‘base camp’, Acampar Lago Pehoé, and had stocked up appropriately, a happily unhealthy counterpoint to the inundation of cereal bars and dried fruit and nuts we’d collected in Puerto Natales two days’ earlier.

The final section of that day’s trek, walking down to the northern shore of Lago Nortenskjöld and round to the next refugio, was distinctly pedestrian of outlook compared to the earlier part of the day. Our legs were tired from the steep climb up and down the Valle del Francés, and we were already thinking of hot showers and cold beers. As we had been warned beforehand, the Paine Grande lodge had not been heated and hot water had been limited to a couple of hours in the evenings, presumably because the lodge was still recovering from the damage inflicted by December’s fire. But our room-mate there had told us Refugio Los Cuernos was fully functional in every important and warming respect, and we
we made it!we made it!we made it!

with Sarah at the top of the Valle del Francés trek
couldn’t wait. Towards the end of the afternoon, I started clocking those parts of my anatomy that didn’t hurt. “Littlest toes,” I concluded aloud without preamble, “oh, and the ones next to them.”

The third day of the trek was bleak, but our route was mercifully short. We were hungover from an entertaining evening and too much red wine with fellow Dragoman-ers and a honeymooning Irish couple. It had rained most of the night, and was showing little sign of letting up however much we tried to procrastinate over our departure. The refugio staff almost literally had to sweep us out of the building to get us going. There was little by way of common area there and they wanted to clean up for the next inundation of trekkers. We were definitely superfluous. Donning every waterproof layer we possessed, we stomped off into the elements, accompanied this time by two of our own truck, Jeremy and Ian, who’d decided that trekking on their own in weather like this really wasn’t much fun. Fortunately, it was only a matter of four hours or so before we reached our next warm hole, the Refugio Las Torres. For once, we had most of an afternoon to ourselves, inside and warm.

On the final day of the trek, I got up with my fingers still crossed from the night before. Please let the cloud level rise, I’d begged the ether. The day before, the tallest of the trio of granite towers which give their name to the park had remained steadfastly hidden, although down in the valley below we had enjoyed flickers of sunlight in the late afternoon. I looked up from fixing my daypack. The sun rises late here. At 8 am, it was still gloomy and overcast but the cloud level had lifted a little, enough for Torre Sur to reveal her peak. “Dedos cruzados,” I whispered to myself, still tickled that Spanish has exactly the same phrase for this lucky charm.

Over by the hotel, definitely the chichi-est accommodation in the park, a kilometre or so down the track from the refugio, a familiar white and orange truck was waiting. Anki had promised to bring over from base camp those who wanted to do the ‘I’ today, the last leg of the ‘W’. Soon we were reunited with those of our friends who’d decided to drink in the wonderful surroundings of Acampar Lago Pehoé to a greater or lesser extent over the last few days while we had been clocking up mountain miles. They treated us like returning heroes, with consternation over our welfare and interest in our experiences, but, after we offloaded our superfluous kit, they sent us on our way and followed on in their own time.

We’d been warned that the final half-hour or so of this trek was tough, but the rest, although solidly uphill on the outward journey, was not supposed to be too challenging. Half an hour in, we wondered whether we’d heard aright. Walking into another strong wind, the path seemed pretty steep, but our limbs were just cold from the relatively leisurely day the day before. Soon we were back into our rhythm, and could look up to enjoy our surroundings. Once again we were walking up a dramatic valley, this one sharply ‘V’-shaped in cross-section. At its base, the Río Ascencio wound silver and apologetically against the grandeur of its surroundings. The valley’s lower slopes were almost bare of vegetation, our track leading precariously across the scree at times. But, further up, the glorious colours of autumn reappeared

...as autumn colours in Patagonia
in all their finery, again stark in their contrast with the surrounding bare rock.

The camaraderie on this section of the trek was wonderful. Here on the slopes with us in the first light of the morning were our fellow ‘W’ trekkers, people we’d seen on and off over the last three days, faces we’d come to recognise, with whose aches and pains we’d sympathised, whom we’d encouraged, or been encouraged by in turn, at the tougher sections of the trek or late in the day. Some had set out in the dull light of pre-dawn and, a couple of hours in ourselves, we started to run into them on the downward trail. The ranger we’d passed an hour earlier had warned us about the strength of the wind at the top, so I’d begun to wonder if we might actually be frustrated in our goal by the unforgiving weather gods, not something, naively, I’d even thought to take into consideration. But the young German father and daughter, the first of the familiar faces to greet us on their descent, were encouraging, talking of the shelter provided by large boulders just over the lip. At Campamento Torres, we turned
waiting for their rideswaiting for their rideswaiting for their rides

horses outside Refugio Chileno
to head up the rocky slopes of Glacier Torres’ terminal moraine. Although a scramble in places, it wasn’t as hard as the upper reaches of the Valle del Francés – or maybe we were just getting fitter – and we could enjoy the woodland through which we were walking and the increasingly spectacular views.

Finally, we reached the top of the moraine and stepped over to the other side. I gasped. Postcard-pictures hadn’t prepared me for the fantastic vista before me, the arc of unforgiving and jagged bare peaks – Monte Almirante Nieto, the Sur, Central and Norte Torres, and Cerro Nido de Cóndor – around the milky green of diminutive Laguna Las Torres at their feet. In the distance, the remains of the glacier dribbled down the Torres’ rock-faces. At the near side of the tranquil-surfaced laguna, a surprisingly lively stream babbled out at the start of its journey down the mountain-side to join the Río Ascencio. Once again, we ate our lunch in fabulous surroundings, deeply content in every way. It had been an incredible few days, well worth every blister and aching muscle.

On the downward journey, Sarah had the scent of shampoo and clean clothes in her nostrils, and increased our speed by several gears. Even the blowing-us-over strength of the wind across the scree sections wasn’t enough to detain her long. I wasn’t complaining. The first shower after a trek – like the first shower after being in the desert for a couple of weeks – is a sensation like no other… except perhaps the first swig of a well-earned cold beer. We were not to be disappointed in either.

Additional photos below
Photos: 34, Displayed: 34


6th April 2012

And that is not me pretending to be of the canine variety ! Cannot take it all in, what you two are up to. And the photos....simply stunning !! Especially liked the rear view of - is it some of your travelling companions - the four legged ones ! Male company seems not to be a problem then ? Take care both and come back to boring Britain safe and well. I say again, when the book ? Much love, Carolyn and Jim XXXX
7th April 2012

Magical writing, Elizabeth. And stunning photographs.
7th April 2012

Whoops, for some reason I was thinking about Argentina while I made a cup of tea!
7th April 2012

What a fantastic description! Im soooooooooooooooooooooo jealous!
7th April 2012

Beautiful words and even more beautiful pictures.
I read your blog with some tears in my eyes remembering my visit to Torres de Paine a few years ago. The beauty is so stunning and the stillness and silence of the surroundings make the place truly sacred. I have a picture I took of the lake with the peaks in the background. I look at it everyday Your blog brought me back to that lovely place. So sorry to read of the fire. I write under the blog name 'gunga'.
7th April 2012

Being a visual person I automatically picture everything I read...
and for the life of me I could see how, in the course of using toilet paper, it would catch on fire. However, the caption on a picture enlightened me...burning is a consequence of disposal. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your hike...much easier picturing in my mind than walking the whole route...maybe someday.
8th April 2012

You've some nice images there.
10th April 2012

Stunning trip
It takes a lot for me to be further impressed by your adventures Elizabeth, given how many you have had, and how well you have documented them, but this is truly stunning - the photographs in particular. But the physical endurance - I was wincing as I read! I am really looking forward to seeing you when you return, if there is anything left of you! Love, Hazel
20th April 2012

Beautiful pictures. The hike sounds amazing, if a bit exhausting! The amazing things that you have seen over the years - no wonder you get antsy after a couple of weeks back in London!

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