Torres del Paine National Park
26.11.2010 - 03.12.2010
This week’s episode saw a few friends and myself take on the mighty Torres del Paine national park, famous for being some of the most beautiful trekking on the continent. It is also famous however for having some of the most brutal and fickle weather on the continent. Still the park is on just about everyone’s agenda in Argentina/Chile and is simply unmissable for hikers.
With the four of us keen we took a day to hire some equipment and go shopping before loading up our backpacks and preparing for the long hike ahead. There are many different ways to trek in the park with the most popular being the 5-day “W” trek, the loop and the full “Q” the last two which last a bit over a week. We had decided after a calorie filled boat ride to the Antarctic to do the full circuit, planning for eight days. This left us with only one decision left, the route, amazingly this proved to be very difficult as everybody we talked too had a different way to do it and all had both their pros and their cons. Still with the deadline approaching we decided to catch the ferry over to the back and then hike through anticlockwise starting with the “W” in case anything went wrong and finishing with a supposedly light backpack over the difficult pass.
The first day saw us finally get on the bus headed for the pass, the fruition of a whole days planning, we than sat on this bus for a little over two hours as we drove to the national park. They really know how to kill your enthusiasm here but still we got off the bus keen as mustard to get into the hiking. Cue enthusiasm killer number two as we then had to wait over an hour for the ferry before we could eventually get going. Still this gave us one last chance to let it all sink in and observe the towers from a distance before we got in amongst them. It also provided the opportunity to take a few photos of our geared up group before we started.
Disembarking we got straight into it and while the weather was taking a break giving us a beautiful day to enjoy walking along the lake and up towards the towers ending our day at the base of the French valley. The valley is in a beautiful spot as we could look back over the path we had walked but also looking up into the glacier backed valley above. The campsite here was set amongst a forest that would hopefully provide some protection from the wind that can roar through the place. We setup camp pretty easily and tucked into some well deserved dinner before retiring early as the temperature plummeted once the sun dropped.
The second day saw us wake up early but with sun not up yet we decided to stay in bed for a little longer as none of us were quite ready to brave life outside our sleeping bags just yet. Once we deemed it warm enough to get ourselves ready we tucked into some breakfast and started our hike up to the French valley. We were extremely lucky as once again we had a fantastic day on our hands with sun shining down between breaks in the trees. Walking into the valley towards the glaciers was a really beautiful hike and it was especially great to have the forest keeping the wind away for a good portion of the hike. The incredible thing was despite being hidden from the glaciers and wind by the forest we couldn’t escape the incredible roar as giant chunks of snow let go creating avalanche after avalanche! The forest was lovely to walk through and the green trees served as a pleasant distraction until we emerged from the forest and into the valley of glaciers.
The glaciers towered above us dwarfing us and everything below, a nice reminder of just how incredible they can be up close. From here on in the path however got a little sketchy but we continued to hike up the view point which offered amazing 180 views of the glaciers above us and a beautiful 180 view over the lake and valley below. Really hard not to be impressed when you are so far away from civilization and nature offers you views like that. We decided to venture on a bit further climbing up a bit of a snowed over river/small glacier up onto a ridge where the view was just as spectacular but the winds were about ten times as strong! After almost being blown over we retreated back down the valley to pack up and continue our hike to the next campsite where we would spend the night.
The gentle walk of a couple of hours took us up and down annoyingly, over what was essentially a flat journey path. We did however have the luxury of walking alongside a lovely pebble beach on the lake and it was almost a requirement to sit down and enjoy the incredible day once again that we had on the lake for an hour or so. Heading off from the beach we arrived at our first paid campsite in the park. The good news was that they had hot water showers and coldish beers, the bad news was that this was probably the worst organized campsite I have seen. After paying we were essentially told to set up the tents anywhere we could find a spot, not bad as we arrived in the early afternoon, sadly other people had followed their advice and this resulted in close to the least efficient usage of the space available possible. Still we got our tents up and enjoy a shower, a warm feed and a cold beer as we sat there in shorts soaking in the lovely sunshine…..so much for the bad weather.
The next day would be our first really long day hiking, with us hoping to cross through the rest of the valley and then hike up to the lookout over the might towers. Well rested and well fed we headed off in indifferent weather, at first we all had our wet weather gear on as it was raining but this gave way to another great day. As we contemplated changing back into shorts we hit the valley and the winds, actually more specifically the winds hit us! Head winds of around 80 km/h slowed our progress especially on the short cut and made the climb up extremely difficult. Still we survived the climb to the top of the pass where a narrow 3m wide goat track takes you around the pass and up towards the viewpoint, here we had no protection and were continually being blown around making it extremely difficult. Once we arrived at the first campsite however we loaded up on lunch and walked with the protection of the forest once again to our campsite at the top. To our relief the campsite whilst free was nicely organized and less of a fight than the night before. After a long day we were eager to get a feed into us and get to bed early as tomorrow we planned to be up at 4:30am to be up at the viewpoint to see the sunrise over the towers, supposedly an incredible site.
Day four was a big wake up call for us as mother nature flicked the switch and reminded us that we were in her backyard and indeed at her mercy. We awoke bright eyed at 4:30am looking forward to seeing the sunrise, however as we poked our heads out of our tent we were greeted with not rain but snow! Yes that’s right battling our way out of our warm sleeping bags in anticipation of a beautiful sunrise we had however found ourselves in the middle of a snow storm and to top it off thick fog. A quick discussion saw us retreat to bed and have another look in a couple of hours. Two hours later there was some good news – it had almost stopped snowing but the fog was still thick and the creek water freezing cold. Still we braved breakfast and walked the half an hour up to the lookout to see what we could see. Once we got up there all that we could see was the sign that showed beautifully exactly what we should have been able to see! Still there was a lovely lake up there with nice clear glacial water and it did provide a great photo opportunity of the “here’s what you should be able to see”. We waited up there for about half an hour but since the weather showed little sign of improving we retreated to our campsite.
The rest of today would be a long one as we retreated down the valley and then began our journey around the less walked back of the towers. It was at this point that the mountain struck and we suffered a casualty with Chris’s feet injured and him being unable to continue. With him pulling out at lunch time we grabbed a bit of food and took the opportunity to leave some stuff with him before venturing on for another five hours to our campsite. The walk was not so bad as the day was once again lovely and winds for the most part stayed away, this was until we hit the plains where the head winds came once again. The most brutal part of the walk however was the sign that said 2km to go at which point it then took us over half an hour longer…..2km my ass! Once we got to the campsite we chatted with another couple that had a GPS, that 2km walk was actually 3.3km as the crow flies!
Once we finally arrived at our campsite we found some very welcoming guys there, along with some ridiculously strong winds. Setting up the tents here became a three man job (it was seriously windy!), with two people holding the tent down and the third pegging it in. Still atleast we had grass to sleep on tonight, a nice contrast from the rocks of the night before. Whilst cooking dinner we had to keep checking every few minutes to see if the tents were there, a few times we jumped out there to find one rooted only by a solitary peg and rolling around in the wind…….just to help you imagine the wind, this was happening with a full backpack inside!
After a difficult night’s sleep owing to the tent being blown in our face all night we awoke not exactly well rested (more like having done a few rounds with Mike Tyson) but keen to carry on none the less. Today we had decided on a smaller six hour hike to get to our next campsite rather than make a really long day of it. With the wind still blowing strong and a big hill to climb we set off. The wind provided the most challenging part of the hike once again as we were being blown backwards and side to side by the wind on the hill. Once again it was almost a relief to get to the forest and for the first time in the park the weather actually made the walk difficult to enjoy as you were focused more on the fight you were in rather than the beauty of the park.
After a mid hike lunch we arrived at our destination, a completely empty campsite set on the lake which provided us with a free coffee on entrance – not too bad at all. After a quick trip down to the lake where the wind made it both cold and uncomfortable we cooked up some dinner and prepared for the next long day.
Today was to be the big day where we would hike up to and over the pass taking in the spectacular views of the grey glacier as we did so. Once again mother nature gave us a reminder of who was in charge and we once again awoke to snow. Soldiering on despite the cold hands over breakfast we were on our way by 7am. With the snow stopped we were left to make tracks through the forest once again, stopping every now and again to marvel at how beautiful the hills looked with the tree tops covered in snow. A really pretty sight especially for three Australians that are almost completely unfamiliar with this! Then just to prove a point the wind picked up blowing the snow off the trees and into our faces, annoyingly this was just like rain if slightly less consistent. Finally we emerged from the forest, leaving us about an hour before the final campsite, before the glacier, it was at this point that we hit a blizzard with strong winds and snow blowing straight into our faces – just what we needed at the time!
Arriving at the campsite we were greeted with an area under about half a metre of snow, not exactly what we were hoping to see. We were at this point freezing and took the opportunity to jump inside a little shelter where they said they would light a fire in about an hour. Our response was simple, why not light it now? Still we cooked up some food and a pot of tea to keep us warm and they finally brought in some wood and informed us we could start a fire in the drum, sadly the wood they brought in was covered in snow – not ideal. After bagging off as much snow as we could we braved the cold to try and break up some wood and get a fire going, luckily we managed to get it going on the third attempt with some wet cardboard and had a bit of a fire going. Most of the warmth in the first 15 minutes however went to drying out the rest of the wood so we had something to burn later. Still after about 30 minutes we had what we all wanted a roaring fire that kept us and the other people that had turned up nice and dry, we did however go through what they thought was two hours of wood in an hour!
It was then that we got the news we did not want to hear, they had closed the pass as the snow was up over the markers (1.5m high markers no less) making the pass impossible to follow. With this new we were left with the choice of camping here and hoping the pass would be open the next day or returning back the way we came and missing the pass. Waiting around for four hours the snow hadn’t stopped and with the pass another 500m higher again we knew the snow would only be deeper and thicker up there. With our fate sealed by our now great white enemy we had to make the sad decision and retreat back to the campsite we had started the day at, we would not complete the pass, we would not complete the circuit. Still for three guys from Australia being stopped by a blizzard and snow is as much of an achievement as it is a heartbreak and still provides us with a unique story to tell. We arrived back at the campsite with a minimum of fuss, there was no excitement anymore it was simply a means to an end, get to the campsite tonight and try to get out the next day.
The next day we all awoke very early praying for a miracle of sunshine that would give us one last chance at the pass in the afternoon, alas once again we awoke to snow. Atleast mother nature didn’t try and raise our hopes I guess. On the road by 7am once again we set ourselves for a long day, we would try and squeeze two days of hiking into one and get out of the park today, with only about 11 hours of hiking standing in our way.
The mood was more somber than the day before but the pace was faster despite this being our seventh day owing to just wanting to finish. This saw us make great time up and over the hills despite the steepness and the duration of the climb nobody wanted to stop and rest it was one foot in front of the other stuff with little of the scenery taken in. A sad end to a lovely walk but now it was all about the end. Once we arrived at the campsite for lunch we were all tired and had sore feet but no one wanted to stop for the night we just wanted to get lunch out of the way and get back on the road with another 6 hour stretch ahead of us.
After lunch we had a brief rise in spirits as we headed off travelling at a good pace just hoping to get through the plains, take the short cut and catch the bus but this dissipated within an hour or so. For the first time the weather helped us a bit with the wind behind us, still blowing us side by side on the path, not perfect but better that it hitting us square in the face. We moved through the plains easily and took the shortcut at which point we were greeted with more wind and some of the most boring scenery you would want to see. After a day of retracing our steps we were looking forward to seeing some new scenery however all we did was skirt around the valley taking in wide open plains and dead trees, not exactly inspiring to walk through or take your mind off just getting to the end. Still we walked without daring to take a long break, as we knew it would be impossible to get going again. Today was the only day that we were allowed to complain because everybody was suffering and we atleast all suffered together. We eventually saw a building off in the very far distance and cursed; it was about an hour further than we thought it would be but thankfully the trail took us a different way towards a building that took a while to spot but was a good half hour closer than the other. Finally we arrived at the bus stop, beaten on points comfortably by the park and the weather a man down but atleast we survived the full 12 rounds. A cooked meal other than pasta and a few beers would be in our future. The park is beautiful, the trekking amazing and the weather brutal – the park well and truly lived up to its reputation.