Ready for Torres del Paine?
The tourist bus, and there is no 'normal' transport, goes from touristy Calafate in Argentina to touristy Puerto Natales back in Chile on the Pacific Ocean, no doubt this is the route I always try to avoid. Though C. and I manage to go from a cheap run down hostel in Calafate to a cheap run down hostel in Natales and cook our own food, as restaurants are tourist traps, bars are tourist traps, shops are tourist traps, meaning overpriced for what you get. Weather is bad, rainy, windy, chilly, and in Natales I take 3 days and investigate how it is to be done here, walking the Torres del Paine circuit.
Wednesday, 13th of 3, 2013 the morning is frosty as never before when I take the tourist bus at 6 a.m. to Torres del Paine National Park some 150kms in the north; the southern winter is certainly approaching fast, but skies for the first time are immaculate clear. Our bus is part of a convoy of buses, tourists like cattle are being freighted on dirt roads, then into the ticket office, made to fill out registration forms, answer and sign questions, attend a NP-rules briefing; the voice is harsh, the finger up in the air, 'don't risk sanctions'. Unqualified people schoolmaster the crowd, no manners, no room for niceties, treat those who pay hundreds of dollars in such a rude way, 'next year I go back to the Dolomites', complains a German next to me, 'they act as if they invented National Parks'. Don't leave your garbage, take out what you take in, is so clear for any European/American, in fact I am astounded to some degree that some country in South America finally addresses the issue in just a tiny part of its territory, Chile's San Pedro Atacama and its Valle de Luna in the north was a trash dump. In any other place I would turn around and leave, here I let them lecture me, am angry but don't let my anger take over, this is not a nice welcome!
To their rescue one has to say that tourist have in the past brought disaster to Torres del Paine, camp fires destroyed on several occasions vast forested areas, fire risk is highest when conditions are dry and windy, but this is the same in many parts of the world, California, Southern France, and authorities don't go on a rampage.
1st day Administracion to Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Grey, 29kms.
The weather is a miracle this morning, the Torres are visible over the lake in a deep blue sky while I take the bus to the station furthest south, administracion, where only a last ranger disembarks, I have successfully overcome the abuses of the guards, freed myself of all other people, then have the pampa alone to myself, and start walking north at 12 noon.
I have come to walk fast, extremely light, only taken the very necessary, a sleeping bag, rain gear and a warm jacket, my camera, that's it. Some salami, cheese, bread and chocolate, 4 cans of beer should get me through the next 5 days. I intend to have one hot meal each evening in the refugios, walk from refuge to refuge, avoid the camps as I don't have a tent, run it in 5 or 6 days instead of 9.
On my first 18kms I am indeed on my own, in a flat Patagonian steppe wilderness, which becomes a bit more rolling once I approach Paine Grande, and Lake Pehoe, the Cuernos always reside in front to the right of my path. And nature is mostly burnt, char coaled dead trees all the way.
Somewhere I have a beer, an early celebratory one, then race on and after 4 hours reach Paine Grande. After a Coke, and sugar is key, my path leads slightly up, and I have joined the circuit, and the groups of trekkers, by now I am relaxed about people, smile and greet the universal 'Hola' every so often. The stretch to Grey Refugio is part of the popular 'W' and at the late hour many are on their way back from the glacier.
Somewhere higher north is little Lago Los Patos, picturesque vast Campos del Hielo Sur glistens untouched far in the back and the late sun, further on is a look out onto Glacier and Lago Grey, to the right Paine Grande Massif and some peaks tower high. I have my second can of beer and rest for a moment, capture a wonderful moment and smile quietly that I am up to something great here. Walking on the trees are all still burnt, huge dead logs lie around, the fires finished all off. Down deep below to my left the icebergs float by on the turquoise surface, to my right the barren rock and high up the snowy cliffs. My path keeps going up and down the many ravines of waterfalls and streams, sun sets early behind Grey Glacier still far in front left. I reach Refugio Grey, a luxury retreat at 8 after 30kms of walking. There is a wood fire burning in the chimney, and a tasty huge oven grilled piece of beef, puree, soup, appetizer, dessert come nicely. Too tired for another beer I sleep but the aches pound all night.
2nd day Refugio Grey to Los Perros to Refugio Dickson, 31kms.
Blue skies again and legs in pain, night has been just half warm, I dress for a coffee that comes for 500 Chilenos, 1 dollar, and I have two but no breakfast, in my luxury retreat. The thing of the Torres del Paine trek is that you can camp out in minus 10°C, if you bothered carrying a tent, or pay luxury fees for a bunk bed that is not heated, whoever had that great concept, food in the refugios is good but expensive, breakfast too.
This morning is even colder than was Natalas, it's the immaculate skies and the glacier lake near, that cool it and it hurts when I walk on out. The way to Campo Paso leads up and down, over the occasional cold steal ladder, and I have only thin woolen lady's gloves, it's down the waterfalls and up, back up the canyons, and for quiet some time it never ends, what you make in altitude you loose on the next down path.
From Paso Camp and here you can pitch a tent for free in the cold, finally it leads higher in curves, straight up, hard. Sun keeps hiding behind the Paine Grande Massive to the East all this morning and the cold remains my companion until I step beyond the trees and hold my breath at the most amazing view onto Glacier Grey down to the West. The revelation, the resurrection from the cold, by now it deserves a beer and a panorama shot, elevation is just above 900m, this constitutes an early and lasting and maybe best experience on the Torres trek. Glacier Grey is deep below, the tens of kilometers of tens of thousands of crevasses, and in some corners of the huge thing the ice is blue.
El Cumbre, Paso John Gardner, is a bit higher at 1,200m, and there is time for few just shy glances back but eventually then the Grey glacier's view is gone, maybe forever in this life. It is indeed hard to wrestle loose but necessary to carry on swiftly.
The descent is so much joy after the uphill struggle on the other side, down a trough valley at full speed, the going becomes a bit a struggle further down nearer to Campo Los Perros, the path loses itself in deep mud, caused by small tributaries to Rio Los Perros that cross everywhere. In Los Perros Camp I meet a few friends from back in Natales, some show clear signs of wear due to the huge backpacks, that carry their tents and tons of food. I drink a beer, stretch out, while a wild coyote sneaks around in search for food. I contemplate staying but decide against, and Joe from South Africa comes running after me and throws me a Snickers over the stream, such a nice gesture, I shout back 'beer in Natales on me', and with a big smile, propelled by sugar, I fly on.
A little muddy glacier lake and Glaciar Los Perros dropping over black and white cliffs in its back is the last great attraction of the day, and one could rest here and just watch in the amazing sun, but I race on for 3 more hours, through the woods of Lenga, to Dickson Refuge for another first class meal of roast pork and soup and dessert, and another beer, and I don't get a receipt, and the crew have a wine fiesta...
At night all is pitch dark, my knees hurt in the freezing cold under the roof, so tired I remain mostly awake till morning, as the oven is off.
3rd day from Refugio Dickson to Campo Serón to Hostería Las Torres, 28kms.
They don't charge me for a coffee, give me some yesterday's bread for free, I have some leftover cheese and salami, then see Lake Dickson, and all tents on the campground carry an extra heavy layer, a sheet of ice. Morning air is crisp, skies blue when I step over the pebbles, and wonder should I stay or head on, and decide for the second. Some feathers of clouds, no more at the early hour, a few hours a white dark heavy would cover the whole of the sky, the weather has changed for now and I don't want to be caught on the backside of the Torres Massive.
All day is just a bit up and down walking the back pampas around the bends of Rio Paine, fast, and I reach Las Torres Hostel/Refuge at a good hour, and just on the last stretch the Towers become visible, reaching like giant gravestones into the dark. I am tired, my feet hurt, it has been some 88kms so-far, end of day 3 food is again great, and I celebrate with 3 Austral Calafate Ales from the bottle.
4th day, Refugio Las Torres to the famous towers of Torres del Paine to Refugio Chileno, just 16kms.
Sun is up under a cloudy sky, the rays though can't touch the towers. No need to rush, and my coffee comes for free again and in dire need for energy I put sugar inside, eat some remaining dry bread that was already old yesterday and cheese and salami. This is day four and I am tired, I have come the whole back circuit, have rejoined the groups and crowds on the 'W', my knees hurt a bit, and it is a boring climb to Refugio Chileno just above 500m, with the torres never coming into sight. Arrived at Chile Refuge sun comes out, and I leave my pack and head higher, on for the towers, and again they wouldn't become visible until really the very end of the arduous climb over rocks, boulders, pebbles and dust.
By two in the afternoon the blue of the sky has turned to gray, there aren't too many people, just the Godly Torres del Paine with their green glacial pond. I find my own stone and stretch out, and ponder from how incredibly far I have come to watch this masterpiece of nature, so serene and mystical this afternoon.
Cold creeps in from below, after more than an hour on my stone I wrestle free from the hallucinating sight. Back in Chileno sun is out, and I feel that I deserve a special treat, ahead of schedule I relax for an afternoon with a bottle of Frontera Chile red wine that is on offer for just 10USD, and later with great food I order another one, and wrangle with the replacement lady over the price, as she wants 20.
5th day, Refugio Chileno to Refugio Cuernos to Campo Italiano to Refugio Paine Grande, and a bit more just for fun, 35kms.
Such a nice auberge/hostal/refugio Chileno, and so typical for Chile it is full of rules, 'take your shoes off' and all staff and guides walks in with dirt on their boots, so all guests could walk socks in dirt, 'don't sit at the fire place' so all staff can occupy the warmest place... In the morning the crooked lady that tried to cheat on the wine wants 2000 Pesos, 4USD for a coffee, she's nuts, clearly staff in the NP become corrupted, as the prices that are charged to tourists are beyond anything normal Chilean people would want to afford, these young employees have lost their sense of reality.
This sends me out without coffee, without breakfast, on a long rolling hike along Lago Nordenskjold, I have no more food reserves and still last night's wine in the bones. By one I get to Cuernos Refuge, lunch is nice, 8000 Pesos, 16USD, the beer they overcharge, 3000 instead of the universal 2500 everywhere else in the NP. They only overcharge so slightly, still it sucks, I leave, add a few more miles to Paine Grande Refuge, then walk all up to the Grey Glacier lookout, just for fun, I have been here just 4 days ago, had cicled all around, 140kms so-far, then not completely coincidental meet C. back in Refugio Paine Grande and rescue her from the cold of a tent to the dormitorio. Food is again great, a huge tasty portion of minced beef from the oven and puree, and we enjoy together some of last night's leftover wine that I brought all along.
6th day, Refugio Paine Grande to Campo Italiano, up to Valle de Francés, and back, 25kms, then out by catamaran over Lago Pehoe.
Up at 6 before dawn and we pack and leave our rucksacks at reception. Thanks to C., who brought new food provisions we make our own Nescafe with hot water from the kitchen. Weather is most spectacular, immaculate skies just at dawn and that should last till late morning, we're the first who take to the camino to Campo Italiano, the same path back that I came down the day before.
I have kept the best for the 6th and last day, and C., the ascent to the Valle de Francés, still early we have the amazing weather and the spectacular view for us. Paine Grande peak is a stone throw away and rises to almost 3000m in elevation, the glaciers' continuing calving sends snow and ice avalanches down the cliffs with thunder. This French Men's Valley deserves a last celebratory beer.
Somehow after 5 days, I feel tired, we continue eventually a bit further up, before turning back. The weather has changed too, the cold and winds are back, much more typical for Torres del Paine and Patagonia, Chile's very south. We take the boat from Paine Grande Refuge over Lake Pehoe, and obviously staff pockets my money without a ticket, then the annoying tourist bus to Puerto Natales.
This has been 6 days of walking the Torres del Paine circuit and 'W', 5 would have been enough, I hiked a total of 164kms. All the trekking after abandoning the Chevy van was worthwhile good training, not a single blister I took away. Important was to walk light, in order to be able to walk fast, not worry about tent and food.
What next? South till the end, there is only so little more to do!