Torres del Paine, an enigmatic national park in Patagonia was one of the reason’s why I finally decided to step away from my clinic in Virginia Water and to organise my life in a very different way.
If you want to go hiking in these mountains you will need to put aside at least 3 weeks, to acclimatize yourself and then to really enjoy the experience without a constant rush. This is more or less impossible if you have a veterinary practice in my part of the world, especially if the set up is more small scale with a strong personal relationship to your clients and to their pets.
Well, this was in the past and after dropping off everything I am unlikely to use with Bill at the Erratic Rock, I am finally sitting in an overland bus driving down an empty road through arid farmland when the magnificient mountain range of the national park suddenly appears on my left side.
The road then takes a left turn and is heading straight for the mountains and the bus finally comes to a stop at a somewhat deserted road crossing called “Laguna Amarga” where you normally register with the park authorities.
Black flags on the side of the road and boarded up doors and windows at the park office buildings indicate though that there is trouble here and that the park rangers have gone on strike – something that had been rumoured about in Puerto Natales.
Rather then waiting here for another bus to take me and a few other hikers into the park, I decide to shoulder my pack and to walk the final eight kilometers to get used to the suroundings, to the unusual weight on my shoulders and to approach the mountain range in my own time.
The countryside is very much like a desert with only some low growing shrubbs being able to survive. These in turn give nourishment to small groups of guanacos which then sustain the occassional puma, but I am not lucky enough to spot one.
While walking slowly towards the park gates I can feel the unfamiliar 15 kg of the pack on my back, but I decide that there is still space enough to fit you in as well and to take you with me on my journey through one of the most beautiful mountain areas on the planet……
Day 1 – Refugio Torres Central – Mirador Base Las Torres – Refugio Torres Central – Camp Seron
It is 1 o’clock in the morning and as I can’t sleep I decide to start my trip with a bit of a crazy idea:…..
The center piece of the national park is the view of the Torres del Paine from the other side of a mountain lake – the so called Mirador Base Las Torres. Every child in Chile is familiar with this view , as it features on the 1000 Peso bank note (although it is unlikely that you will spot a guanaco up there ……).
The scenery is even more spectacular at sunrise when the Torres (the towers) take on a redish glow, but that requires that you have to be there at 5:30 in the morning and my refugio and the mirador are separated by 1000 altitude meters and 4 hours of hiking. The weather at the moment is excellent and knowing how fast this could change in the mountains, I make the decision to see this place right at the beginning of my trip rather than at the end, which – as it later turned out – was a very wise move…….
I sneak out of my dormitory room, have a short solitary breakfast before putting on my head torch, shouldering a much lighter day pack and heading out into the darkness.
It feels slightly uncomfortable walking through an unfamiliar countryside (with the real possibility of passing a larger cat on the way…..) in the middle of the night, but not only am I lucky that unbeknown to me we have a nearly full moon, but soon I spot first one and then several more lights that are appearing on the hillside below me – so I am not the only crazy person here after all……
Soon Ricardo from Guatemala is catching up with me and while squezzing my Spanish to its absolute limits, we ascend together further towards the Chilean hut which is in the middle of the way to the mirador (I had failed to secure a place there for the night). After well over an hour of hiking we meet a couple from Ireland. It turns out that Ricardo and the Irish couple had shared a room at the central refugio and when greeting each other, Ricardo is responding in perfect English !…….
When asked why he didn’t say so earlier and letting me struggle along with my rudimentary Spanish, he smiles at me and says – well I thought that you enjoyed it !……
When passing the Chilean Hut some more hikers join us for the final ascend which includes some scrambling.
Then the sun starts to illuminate the sky on the horizon in the East and we finally reach the viewpoint and the lake which provides a perfect mirror image of the Torres. These near vertikal peaks are the insides of an ancient vulcano. With the darker outside slopes having weathered away over thousands of years, water, ice and wind have left only a mold of the chimneys behind producing this unforgettable scenery which is attracting every year thousands of hikers from all over the world.
It pays to bring along some warm clothes, because just when you think that you have seen this beautiful sight and consider to return to the more temperated valley below, the first rays of direct sun light start illuminating the peaks and just for a couple of minutes make them glow in a bright red colour which makes the whole spectacle completely over whelming.
When finally descending down to the main hut again, we meet a lot of hikers asking us about the view at the mirador and while telling them that it is well worth the effort, I can’t supress the thought of Plato’s parable of the tree and the people in the cave and I think that whatever they will see, will only be a poor reflection of to the view we had earlier today….
After seven hours and twenty kilometers of hiking I am back at the cabin where I reward myself with a break and even with an obligatory Pisco Sour with my fellow hikers, before then shouldering the full pack and making my way to the Seron campsite – my second scheduled stop, 13 km further North….
To explain this, here a brief summary of the rules for hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park:
The Park can only be entered from the beginning of November until the end of April or May. If you want to stay in the park you need to book your accommodation (well) in advance and you have the option between the “W” and the “O” route.
The “W” route, covering only the Southern side of the park is more developed with staffed refugios along the way. You can choose freely in which direction you want to go between the cabins.
The “O” route – which is including all the stops of the “W” – is making an over 100 km long circle around the whole mountain range and hike is not only more demanding, but some nights have to be spend on remote campsites and you are only allowed to walk in an anti-clockwise direction. You need to pre-book all your stops in advance and you need to reach the camps before sunset.
Having not planned my nocturnal outing to the Mirador when I plotted my trip, I have no choice but to cover the first leg of the “O” route in the remaining hours of the day, to reach the campsite before sunset.
Thankfully the remaining way is well signposted and not too demanding, but- I have to admit – following the experience of the earlier hours at the Torres, I find the countryside somewhat underwhelming as the rolling fields and park like landscape reminds me very much of the South of England or of some areas I had seen in Wales or in Herefordshire!….
After walking along some farm tracks, passing over fields and walking along a slow running river which resembles very much the Thames in Oxfordshire, I finally reach the campsite and with that a much needed cold beer and a warm meal.
Day 2 Camp Seron – Camp Dickson
On then next morning the sky is grey and there is a light drizzle of rain.
I decide to stay in the tent and enjoy my book as there is now no internet connection. Some fellow hikers appear to be habitual early risers and they have left the camp at the crack of dawn. I can’t quite understand this – if there is anything to be gained by being out early, I am all for it. Today however, the second half of the day is supposed to be better so that it is in fact an advantage to be out late and to ideally wait until it has dried up somewhat.
As a result of this line of thought, I am the last person out of the camp today……
This again is not a problem, as it means that I can let the scenery work on me without any distraction.
While starting my hike I realise that these 30 or so people who shared the campsite with me last night, will be my family for the next week, as we all have to circle the mountain range in the same direction.
As with this trip both hiking and staying in a tent is involved, I am sure that I will be in good company as I always find that this is filtering out a lot of people that I am struggling to communicate with.
Furthermore, I catch myself trying to guess (actually pretty well) the nationality of fellow hikers by certain steretypes:
There is the group of young guys, downing some – at $10 the can pretty expensive – beers and conversing very loud about all the equipment they bought and quoting all sorts of stats on altitude and distances (in feet and miles) – sure enough US Americans…..I also notice some big packs and I am wondering how this might work out over the next few days…..
Then there are three other guys – chatting the whole time, but communicating more quietly, joking and smiling a lot. There is more lightness in their conduct – may be Mediterranian I think and then find out that Paolo, Victor and Breno are actually from Brazil!
There is a couple with a very neat and tidy tent (nicely set up, no loose items visible outside the tent), but they are not as much connecting with the rest of the group – so not much guessing were the Germans (in fact a lovely couple of a fireman and a nurse) are living….
A friendly lady had greeted me when I had entered the camp site. She and her friends look well equipped with high end outdoor gear but are carrying and cooking their own meals – Canadians.
I overhear another couple and can’t quite place them yet: English or Irish – good gear, equal sized packs and a big camera ……
…and so on, and so on…..
With these thoughts I am starting the first few kilometers through the “English countryside” when the trail begins to climb, the drizzle stops and the scenery changes completely:
Reaching the top of the hill, I am surounded by round, low growing shrubbs that look as if someone has groomed them into this shape. One side of them is covered with hundreds of beautiful, but very small, red flowers. I can not recall having ever seen such a plant.
Then, turning around a corner, a huge turkis coloured lake appears in the valley below and while I stop and admire the view, I notice two huge birds circling above the nearby mountain top, completely without moving their wings – a pair of condors !
Here it is, the complete beauty of Patagonia !……
I sit down and congratulate myself that I stayed behind and that I left late. I take out my thermos flask and a snack and realise that there is no better place in the world – at least at the moment – to take your time and to have a break. This is what hiking and travelling in general is all about….
There is no-one but myself to decide when to walk and when to rest and again it is taking me a while before I am getting up to continue with todays hike, but there are so many beautiful views, so many flowers that are new to me and different bird songs to listen to, that my progress remains very slow.
Quite frankly – I don’t worry and I don’t care ! The whole distance between the camps is just below 20 kms on a well signposted path, there is not much of an elevation, the weather is getting better all the time and as it is now November, the days are very long on the Southern Hemisphere.
Despite the fact that there is an open countryside with a lot of lush green grass, I have no longer seen any guanacos, although I spotted a lot of them alongside the road leading up to the park. When I come across the first puma dropping right on the path, which appeares to be very fresh, I realize that this might probably be because of the denser vegetation, which gives a predator far more coverage……
Although I am secretly hoping to spot one of these elusive cats, I also have to admit that I wouldn’t like to stand suddenly right infront of one….Considering this I decide – similar to the hiking among bears in the mountains in British Colombia three summers ago – that on balance I will be happy if I won’t see one after all.
Finally there is just a small ridge to climb and then it is laying just in front of me….one of the most amazing camp sites I have ever seen….situated on a small outcrop of land , surounded on three sides by the turkis waters of the Dickson lake and cradled between snow capped mountains it just looks unreal.
Adding to it, the campsite features a central building with a large veranda and ignoring the fact that they had run out of beer, the bar remains well stocked with Chilean red wine.
So – if you haven’t meet your fellow hikers last night, you will certainly do so today….
While enjoying a glass of Merlot, it turns out that the British/Irish couple are both anaesthetists from the UK and Ireland working at a large hospital in Dublin. I also make the aquaintance of a bearded man, build like a tree and – sure enough – the only Norwegian I had noticed in the guest book. Vegar – I have to compliment his parents on this excellent choice of name as it reminds me of one of Norway’s great cross country skiing legends… – was born on the South tip of the equally stunning Lofoten Islands, but he choosed to make a living as a professional photographer in California (@vegarabelsnes).
When we, at the end of the evening, stagger to out tents, being somewhat drunken by the beautiful scenery and even more so by the fermented fruits of the Chilean soil, a new family has established itself and from now on we are hiking not among strangers but among friends.
Day 3 Camp Dickson to Camp Los Perros
It is a short and fairly easy hike today and with that there is another excuse for a slow start in the morning. I am still enjoying the scenery which offers a view of the Northern aspect of the Torres del Paine which was complemented last night by a clear view of the Southern Cross which was dominating the sky right above the summits.
I am resting next to my tent in the grass enjoying Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler”. Not a natural choice of a novel for me, but it was the thinnest volume of interest for me at a book exchange in Punta Arenas.
Once back on the trail, the view is again changing completely and yesterday’s open plains are replaced by a dense forest with a lot of fallen trees and full of various birdsongs, but with very limited sightings of animals at all. The only exception are the red and black Magellanic woodpeckers, with some of them appearing not being fazed by humans at all.
A lonely gaucho with a couple of pack horses is crossing my pass, but otherwise this part of the hike remains unspectacular.
Finally I am reaching the edge of the forest and have to climb a steep hill with loose rocks of all sizes and with very little vegetation. Reaching the top I realize that it is the end moraine of the Los Perros Glacier which is now visible on the other side of an icy lake.
From here it is not far to the next Camp, which very fittingly carries the name of nearby glacier : The Dogs Camp….
The place is miserable and cold – what a difference to the last night. The tents are pitched on some wet soil underneath some trees which provide not much shelter from the gusty wind that is coming from the mountain path ahead. There are just a couple of unheated rooms where you can prepare some food and no alcoholic drinks are on offer. Following a simple meal of lentil soup and water I am – like everyone else – retiring to my tent, preparing myself for an uncomfortable night….
Day 4 Camp Los Perros – Refugio Grey
A truly miserable night !…..After informing myself how Russian aristocrates blew their fortunes in the 19th century in imaginary German spa towns, I had struggled to get properly warm and reasonably comfortable in my tent despite (or because of ?….) the fact that I had put on every piece of clothing I could find in my bag pack. I had rolled around on my thin isolation mat like a large sausage with five or six layers of skin and was looking forward to the first day light and – according to the guide books – to the most demanding hike of the whole trip…
Leaving the camp the trail leads uphill all the way to an exposed ridge which an all maps comes with a health warning for strong winds. Aready the first hour is physically challenging as a lot of fallen trees are blocking the way – it is just the beginning of the hiking season and just 2 weeks ago this part of the park had been covered with a deep layer of snow. I have to take off my backpack to pass it over or underneath large tree trunks or the path as disappeared completely which requires a de-tour. Eventually I am passing the tree line and with all but the hardiest shrubbs now disappearing I find myself surounded by just rocks and glaciers. I then come across the first snowfields and I start wondering if it was a wise decision having left my crampons behind…..
Further up on the path I am catching up with the American kids – one of them is in trouble: a big guy but with just too much gear and clearly not used to the mountains. While walking with him for a while it turns out that this is his first hiking trip and I have to agree with him that he feels that he was thrown into the water at the deep end.
Although the headwind is now brutal, the temperature is just around freezing and the highest point of the mountain path is just a few hundred meters ahead of us. Once this has been passed, an incredible view is waiting for us: the Southern Patagonian Ice Field !
With a width of over 6 kilometers you are struggling to see the other side of this massive glacier. The Northern part is disappearing into the horizont and far away to the South, held back as by a door stop by a massive nunatak, its ragged edge is calving into another turkis coloured lake with a number of picturesque icebergs floating in the freezing water further away.
The watershed of the John Gardner Pass is not an inviting place to stay and we are descending as fast as possible to a large plateau below where more of our group are gathering for photos. The Brazilians are clearly not enjoying themselves: they are huddling close together and are cold despite numerous layers of clothing. It just isn’t their natural habitat and I hate telling them that this is by no means really cold……
The snowfields are turning from being a slippery challenge on the upphill section into a convenient way to glide down the mountain on the other side of the pass and the altitude meters are tumbling fast.
With this the temperature is rising and it is difficult to decide when to put layers of clothing off or on again.
Now the path is leading for many kilometers along the mountain side all the way South with the glacier like a river made of waves of ice always on the right side below us.
From time to time seasonal rivers are blocking the path and some have to be crossed with the help of huge suspension bridges which are not made for the fainthearded….
After nearly 10 hours of solid hiking Refugio Grey is reached and with that a warm (bunk) bed, a three couse meal and a well stocked bar to celebrate today’s achievement.
Day 5 Refugio Grey – Refugio Grande Paine
The weather is noticably improving and after spending some time looking at the icebergs on the nearby lake there is just a gentle stroll further South ahead of me.
As we are now on the South side of the park which is well severed with large “refugios”, there is suddenly a larger mix of fellow hikers on the trail.
Without the need for a tent, a thick sleeping bag or cooking utensils most of the people I meet are getting by with just day packs and in many cases trainers are the preferred footwear.
The whole day I am enjoying stunning views of the lake below me on my right and of the snow covered – over 3000 m high – Cerro Paine Grande to my left. With the glacier now disappearing to the North, I am arriving in good time at Refugio Paine Grande on the shores of Lake Pehoe.
In the evening our group of “O” round hikers is garthering for the last time as some of us are planning to continue their journey with the boat the next day.
Day 6 Refugio Paine Grande – Look Out Britanico – Camp Frances
Another unforgetable hiking experience is wait for us today.
I am leaving the refugio together with Gill and Ben – the doctors from Dublin – and we are walking around the Southern face of Cerro Paine Grande in shorts and T-shirts. There is a cloudless blue sky above us, the sun is shining the whole day and the views are just breathtaking.
At Refugio Italiano (which is borded up because of the ongoing park ranger strike) we are leaving our heavy packs behind and head up North again along the Rio Frances. Half way up the valley we are reaching the view point of the French Glacier and witness one of the most dramatic sceneries you will ever come across in the mountains:
Facing the East side of Paine Grande we can see the whole side of the mountain moving and decaying in front of our eyes ! ……..
A mountaineer’s absolute nightmare, every few minutes an avalanche is breaking off from the overhanding edge of the glacier which is now exposed to the sun. The tons of ice, tumbling down the mountain face, then hit the porous rock below causing at times massive landslides which resulting in clouds of dust which are the drifting over the nearby forest. I have never seen such an active mountain face and we are well advised not to get closer to this scene of pure carnage.
It is taking us a while to continue our track further up the valley to the probably less spectacular (but safer…) British view point . Here we are surounded by a ring of ragged mountain tops which – I find – show a strong resemblance to weathered peaks in the Italian Dolomites.
This detour has been well worth the effort and just before sunset we are reaching the French Campsite near Lake Nordenskjöld.
Day 7 Camp Frances – Refugio Cuernos
It has again been a pretty bad night for me…… Having overlooked to reserve a camping spot for myself for this camp, I had to take what was left, which was a sloping spot next to a little stream.
Once again the night was fairly cold and I had been fighting gravity the whole time which resulted in very little sleep. Thankfully the sun is shinning again the today and the world around us warms up pretty fast so that it is again possible to hike just in shirts and shorts.
What is worrying though are the news we receive from fellow hikers about the rangers’ strike: Apparently they have now blocked the access to the Torres and have taken down a bridge on the trail. At the Mastodon Cave (another site run by the park authorities) they have even started to block the road so that the site is now completely closed.
Although some hikers report that so far it is easy to walk around the barriers on the way up to the Torres, it dawns on me how wise my decision had been to cover this central section of my trip right on the first day……
Unaffected by the unfavourable news it turns out to be a beautiful day with a short hike along the South face of the Cuernos (the Horns) – a pair of mountain peaks that appear as if they have been separated right in the middle with a giant knife.
We walk along the shores of Lake Nordenskjöld and both the temperature as well as the scenery is very similar to that of a warm summer’s day at Largo di Garda.
As there is absolutely no rush today I settle with my new Irish friends on the beach and we enjoy the scenery and (for not very long periods) the clear but ice-cold water of the lake.
Gill isn’t feeling too well today and she appreciates the break, but both she and Ben have to continue on the trail for a few more hours to reach the Chilean hut to be as close as possible to see the Torres the next morning. For me the goal for the day is just the local hut by the lake and once I have said goodbye to them I return once again to the beach where I spend the rest of the day.
Day 8 Refugio Cuernos – Refugio Torres Central
This is the final day of my trip in the national park and after a briliant night at the refugio, I have replaced the Irish anaethetists with a Canadian obstetrician who had fallen out with her group of friends during the trip (something I witnessed a few times on this trip and it confirms my belief that it is often best to travel on your own….).
After a late breakfast we are setting off for the last few kilometers and once again the weather is absolutely glorious. With the sun heating up the soil fast now, the main issue is drinking water which I source – similar to the last few days – only from small streams that are coming directly from the mountain.
After just a few kilometers we are catching up with my companion’s friends (two ladies in her sixties) who are now clearly struggling. They both have caught gastro-enteritis and are basically crawling along the path. After making sure that they have enough water I am relieving them of one of their packs which I am happy to carry to the next way junction, but judging by the state they are in, we strongly suggest that they too head for the park exit and not up to the mountain again.
Thankfully the other pack is not too heavy and mine is much lighter as well as I have completely depleted the food I had taken with me on the track, so that I am still able to enjoy the hike.
Finally the central refugio and the park border is coming into sight and following an obligatory Pisco Sour at the bar to finish the track in style, I say goodbye to my Canadian companion and make my way to the nearby bus stop where a truly pityful sight is awaiting me…
More sitting and even laying on the ground than standing are nearly all of my fellow hikers from the last few days! The organised German couple, Vegar the Norwegian photographer, both of my Irish friends, the three brazilian guys – they all have been struck down with sickness and stomach pains.
None of them have made the journey up to the Torres in the morning and they are all hoping to return as soon as possible to the comfort of a hotel room and a nearby pharmacy…
Once again I had a lucky escape – not only had I seen the Torres at sun rise but I also never caught the same bug which I put down to my choice of drinking water – at the huts (where the water was sourced from the lake which was connected to the glacier) I only drank hot or – admittedly – alcoholic drinks and all the fresh water I drank I had collected from clear streams on the way.
Furthermore, when we arrive back at the road junction of Laguna Armaga, a sign is just been erected to inform everyone that until further notice the access to the Torres is now completely closed….
The photos are unbelievably beautiful. I assume you will be writing a book about your travels around the world?
Thank you for your kind words – it it great to see that you are enjoying my blog.
With a book I am not so sure – let’s leave it with the diary for the moment as I rather spend my time with living life rather than writing about it (which can take a lot of time….)
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