Torres del Paine

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January 4th 2013
Published: January 10th 2013
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We left Tierre del Fuego to drive to the Torres del Paine national park, both places I’ve spent years dreaming about going to. After spending New Years Eve in the Land of Fire its time to trek the Towers of Blue.

But first a two day drive to get there. Reversing our last journey of 2012 we left Ushuaia and headed back through Patagonia, across the border into Chile and on to the ferry to cross the Magellan Straights. Camp for the night was another wild camp, no facilities but our very own shipwreck and haunted house!

As light fell I clambered over the wreck and explored the houses before retiring back to the campfire for dinner and a quiz. Thankfully I didn’t explore the houses in too much detail…. Some friends attempted to camp at the same place the following night and as it was too windy to put up tents decided to try to find one of the abandoned houses to sleep in, the one they explored, had sheep carcases hanging from the ceiling, shoved under the floor boards and blood smothered across the floor…… it put them off camping there and I’m glad we didn’t see that before bedding down for the night!

The next morning we headed onward to Puerto Natales to get ready for the trek, Puerto Natales is the drop off town for the Torres del Paine national park, the town is full of people either en route or just returned from the trek. After overnighting in town - and stocking up on snacks, maps and some warmer clothes for the trek - we carried on to the National Park.

A few hours drive from Puerto Natales lies the Torres del Paine national park, as we draw closer you can start to pick out the Torres (towers) the park is famous for. The sun was shining, the view amazing, so we stopped to open the roof seats and travelled the rest of the way to the park in the open air, passing lakes of an amazingly deep blue.

Reaching the park we set up camp in the Lago Pehoe area. It was my turn to cook so after making vegetable soup for lunch out in the open air we took a walk to a nearby waterfall. For dinner that night I fired up the BBQ and we had kebabs and drinks to celebrate starting the trek the next day, forgetting that a late night is not the best preparation for a 4 day walk……

Within Torres del Paine one of the marked treks is the W, this is the trek I would be completing over the next 4 days, it’s an unguided trek, travelling between Refugio’s in a W shape across the park.

W Walk Day 1 - 5th Jan – 22ks

The first catamaran of the day across Lake Pehoe was at 9.30am, so at 8.45 were lake side waiting to board – with the next sailing at noon we’d managed to convince ourselves that it’d be busy and sell out, needless to say it wasn’t and hadn’t.

A 30 minute journey across the lake delivered to our first refugio of the walk, Paine Grande Lodge. The first leg of the W – the left hand vertical line – starts and ends here, so we were able to check in and drop our bags before heading off. The day’s trek took us up to a mirrador (look out) over Lago Grey and Glacier Grey. The majority of the walk took us through the land devastated by the 2011 fire.

In February 2005, an accidental fire started by Czech backpacker Jiri Smitak, which lasted for about ten days, destroyed 155 km² of the park, including about 2 km² of native forest. The fire consumed an area located on the east side of the park and away from the most popular attractions. The Czech government issued a letter of apologyand donated 1 million US$ to reforestation efforts.

In late December 2011, another fire burned 128 km² of the reserve destroying about 36 km² of native forest and affecting most of the areas around Lake Pehoe and the western areas around Lake Sarmiento. An Israeli camper was detained on suspicion of causing the fire. He and his family claimed his innocence and there was no evidence directly linking him to the fire.The Israeli government sent reforestation experts to the zone and has committed to donate trees to replant the affected areas.

Walking among the burnt out twisted tree trunks puts you in a thoughtful and reflective mood, it’s amazing to think that one careless act can cause such an extreme result and goes to show how actions and their consequences should always be thought out, a bigger life lesson there I guess other than not to burn toilet paper…….

As we gained height you start to see closer evidence of the glacier that we’re heading towards, Icebergs! I never knew ice could be so blue, an amazing crystal blue. 11ks later we reached Refugio Grey and our stopping point for lunch. Our first experience of a Refugio was amazing, a warm inviting space to rest up in after a mornings walk. After lunch we headed to the mirrador to look out over the glacier.

The glacier is immense, its breath taking and worth the climb to see it, it stretches off into the distance, this great expanse of ice, where the glacier meets the water floating blue blocks dot the lake and we can see where the icebergs we saw downstream had started their life.

After drinking in the view we turned around to retrace our steps, as we did the weather dropped. Where before it was cold and slightly drizzly, it turned into a downpour with a freezing biting wind. The trek back to the Refugio was pretty horrid, visibility dropped and as we were heading back in the direction we’d come knowing what lay ahead only made it harder. All the downhill scrambles of earlier were now uphill slogs, where before an ascent was a bit steep and breathless, going down in the rain was slippy and treacherous. Finally reaching the warmth of the lodge was bliss. Every piece of clothing I wore was soaked through, my waterproof coat, gloves and shoes were no longer waterproof. Wet through and cold to the bone we made our way to the bar, to sit in the warmth and dry off before dinner and bed.

W Walk Day 2 – 6th Jan – 17k

We awoke on day 2 to more rain, pulled on dry clothes but a still wet coat and shoes and ventured out. It kept on trying to brighten up but the Torres were still masked in grey cloud. After 7km we reached the first check point of the day – Campamento Italiano, a closed campsite and the junction of today’s trail. The right hand path would lead us to our bed for the night, the left to the mirrador overlooking another glacier.

We decided to head left on the hope that the rain and cloud cover would clear giving us a decent view of the Glacier del Frances. The trail headed up, often climbing over boulders and following along small streams, we carried on for 2kms, it rained, it poured, the wind blew straight into our faces, reaching the first mirrador we looked onto the glacier and decided that this pretty spectacular view was the best it was going to be., looking up all we could see was grey swirling clouds, the next lookout seemed unlikely to show us any view at all, so it was time to head back to the Camp Italiano junction and onto the trail that would lead us to our Refugio for the night.

As we walked the trail led us out of the valley and away from the extreme weather we’d been experiencing for the last two days – Torres del Paine has been said to have a number of Microclimates and as you travers the valleys you can feel yourself moving between them – glancing behind us you could see the rain hitting the peak and the trail we’d just been on, yet a kilometre away we were walking in a soft drizzle towards what looked like sunshine, we hoped that we were leaving the bad weather behind!

That afternoon the trail meandered alongside Lago Nordenskjold taking us across tiny coves and beaches, it was the nicest walk of the trek so far, the sun attempted to come out and the rain dried up to a spit. We spent a lot of time jumping from rocks to fallen tree to muddy banks, fording streams and paths flooded by the earlier rain, attempting (unsuccessfully) to keep our feet dry, the views were beautiful, the lake glittering in the afternoon sunshine. Reaching our home for the night – Refugio Los Cuernos – just as the rain began made us feel justified in cutting short the trek to the second mirrador over Glacier del Frances, as a ferocious storm hit we were cosy inside the refugio, drinking hot chocolates, playing cards and drying our boots by the fire. Around 10pm the rain finally stopped, instantly the sky cleared of all clouds, you could view the torres in full from our door and in the late evening light we sat watching the condors circle around the towers before heading to bed.

W Walk Day 3 – 7th Jan – 11k

On day 3 we awoke to more rain, thankfully our boots and coats had spent the night hung around the fire so we had dry clothes to start the day with. As we ate our breakfast the rain started to shift, best weather yet, cold but dry and clear. Today’s trek took us through a change of landscape, meadows filled with flowers, a clear view of the torres and bright blue lakes. We walked along the lake side, lots of steep ups and downs, crossed rickety bridges and forded yet more rivers.

Reaching the refugio – Los Chileno – we settled down to plan our attack of the towers the next day. Speaking to people that had made the final climb that afternoon the visibility was nil, they saw a lake only, the towers covered in dark cloud. Over a few bottles of wine we planned our ascent for the next morning; by the end of the 3rd bottle we had a plan! Sun rise would be around 5am, the summit was 2.5 hours away according to the map and guide book, we’d been regularly waking an hour quicker than the estimated times but as we would be walking in the dark we decided to give ourselves 2 hours.

The alarm went off at 2.30am by 3am we were wrapped up in all the clothes we had with us and with head torches on we set off. Walking in the pitch black was a strange experience, in single file we made our way through the forest our torches illuminating only slightly ahead and to the side. It was muddy going; we forded a few streams, crossed bridges and climbed higher and higher up the valley.

Leaving the woods behind we started to scramble up the mountain side, using our hands we scrambled up over boulders, along sandy paths and over fallen trees. As we climbed the last slope the dawn was chasing us we were just in time – and the first there!

Settling ourselves out of the wind we sat and waited for the sun to come up fully, snow started to fall as the sun came up, turning the torres amazing shades of red. A few dozen people had made the effort it trek up for sun rise, it felt unique and special to be there.

After an hour of gazing at the towers the cold became too much and we headed back down, we we’re back at the refugio just after 7am, awaiting breakfast before many of the other guests had even stirred. After coffee and some food we headed to the end of the trek. 2 hours down a winding path before driving back to base camp for dinner and a well earned sleep.

Torres del Paine, quite possibly my favourite part of South America yet!

Additional photos below
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10th January 2013

Icebergs Ahead!
Hi G The picture of the sunrise is breath taking. It must have been an awesome sight. Love the icebergs too! Those walks will make the ones in the Lake District look like childs play!! xxx

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