Torres del Paine had long loomed as a challenge on our trip. From our very first day in Santiago, we heard many stories from other travellers about trekking around the park, but we still couldn’t really get our heads around how it would work until we arrived in Puerto Natales and started doing some research.
There are two main routes around the park – the full circuit, and the “W”. The full circuit can be seen on the above map as the entire loop from point A to point A, including behind the mountain range. It’s a 7-10 day commitment, with some pretty remote territory – a bit more than we were willing to do, but this was what our more experienced friends Pete, Karin and Paul were planning to do. The “W” is named because of it’s shape on the map, and includes the three valleys and the two lateral sections that connect them at the front. Generally it starts at either point A (East-West) or point B (West-East), with a boat and bus connection either at either the start or end of the journey. Which direction to go is a matter of opinion, with some advising that it’s better to go West to East to benefit from better views in front of you. We decided that we wanted to do the “W”.
Planning and Preparation
Because we didn’t have any camping gear (or the desire to carry it all that way), we planned to stay in refugios (basic mountain lodges with dorm beds) rather than camp. However this being peak season we were told we had to book them in advance. The refugios are actually run by two seperate companies, so we went to the office of the first company to check availability. There were a few nights here and there in the following week, but because we couldn’t check the other company at the same time, it was difficult to know if we’d be able to book all the way through. After much frustration, the guy at our hostel suggested an alternative; he proposed that we camp, but base ourselves in two locations, and do the three valleys as return day-trips instead of a continuous journey. This would mean not needing to carry all the camping gear on the valley hikes, although it would make for some longer days.
So the plan we came up with was:
- DAY 1 – Catch bus to Las Torres camp (shown as A on the above map), setup tent and do a walk to Base Los Torres (A1) and back (19km).
- DAY 2 – Catch bus then catamaran across Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande camp (shown as B on the above map), setup tent and rest.
- DAY 3 – Walk up the Valle Frances (B1) via Campo Italiano, and back (21km).
- DAY 4 – Walk to Glacier Grey (B2) and back (22km).
- DAY 5 – Catch catamaran across Lago Pehoe and then bus back to Puerto Natales.
We (and especially Michelle) were pretty happy with this as it would mean less carrying of gear, and less setting up of campsites. Also if Michelle’s blisters caused her trouble, she wouldn’t be forced to walk to the next camp site but could rest or do a shorter walk. So with this plan locked in, we proceeded on our Punta Arenas side trip to purchase a few items, wait for better weather and rest Michelle’s blistered feet.
On our return, we spent a full day hiring equipment from two separate shops. We had purchased some clothing and small items, but didn’t want to buy big items like a tent, as we didn’t plan to do a lot of camping after. So we ended up hiring:
- A tent (3 man since we wouldn’t be carrying it too much and Michelle likes her space!)
- Mess kit (gas stove, pots, pans, plates etc)
- Walking sticks (they make a big difference)
- Sleeping bags (very thick sub-zero ones)
- Sleeping mat
- Smaller backpacks (ours are enourmous)
We also did a lot of food shopping, since we planned to cook all of our meals. We took some perishables like salami and chorizo for use in the first few days, but mostly it was dried food (and two casks of red wine for those cold nights!).
The bus picked us up from our hostel at 7am and we were off on the 2 hour trip to the park. The weather was fairly overcast, but Michelle caught some of the scenery while I mostly slept along with everyone else on the bus.
When we arrived at the park, we paid our entrance fee and then caught a small shuttle bus up to the first campsite. We set up our tent as quickly as possible, and got ready for our first day. By this stage it was around noon, and we knew it was approximately an 8 hour return trip, so we had to get moving.
By this stage the sky had cleared, and we had a nice sunny day with patches of cloud. We started along the path and passed the Hotel Las Torres, an exclusive 4 star hotel that is at least 3 stars out of our price range on this trip. The path started off gently enough but soon became steep as it cut into the side of a hill with a sheer drop-off on one side. This would have been fine, except it was about here that the wind decided to pick up. It would arrive every minute or two in a huge gust that lasted for about 10 seconds, and during these times we had to hunker down and grab something or we risked being blown over the edge. To make matters worse, the track here was a fine gravel-like grit that would get blown around during these gusts. We made it to the half-way point at Refugio El Chileno and had a lunch break.
We continued on, and by the time we got to the Torres Camp site the weather gradually got worse with the clouds replacing the blue patches of sky and the wind increasing. However we were only 45 minutes from the Base Los Torres, so we decided to continue. This last 45 minutes however was by far the hardest part as it was entirely uphill, steeply climbing up rocks through a creek, and then scrambling across boulders. The path through the rocks was marked with orange sticks, and if they weren’t there we would have had no idea where to go. As we climbed, the weather deteriorated even further, with the wind picking up even more. It seemed like it was raining, but actually it was raining somewhere else and the water was getting blown at us by the winds. We saw a few people coming back, but not any going up with us until towards the end – this led Michelle to the conclusion that it was too late to be climbing and that we would go back (an opinion I heard expressed several times in the days to come). To be honest it was getting late at 4pm, and even though we technically had another 6 hours of daylight it did *seem* too late to be halfway through an 8 hour walk. However with a combination of my urging and her stubborness, she soldiered on!
As we neared the top and rounded the last few boulders, the majestic Torres and the amazing aqua coloured lake came into view. We enjoyed them with 4 other people who were there, taking photos of each other and all just in awe of the amazing sight and relived to have made it. The wind here was incredible, and again we had to grab onto something solid when each gust hit. There were whirlwinds of grit getting whipped up on the side of the mountain and sweeping down on us, slamming into our faces like 1000 stinging needles. I was unfortunately in an open area for one of them, and was picked up and dropped by the amazing force. As spectacular and haunting as it was, we had a long walk back so we decided to leave after about 20 minutes. One advantage of doing the regular W is that you can camp nearby and enjoy more time here, but we were grateful that we’d not had heavy packs for the trip up. We hadn’t experienced Base Torres at it’s best, but we were grateful that we could see them as often they are completely covered by cloud.
The climb down was easier than up, but still very challenging especially as some of the rocks were getting quite slippery and the rain had caught up with the wind and become quite heavy. We met a guy called Guillermo and his lovely girlfriend and walked back to Refugio El Chileno with them where we had a hot chocolate and a well-earned break. It was here that we learnt that the track back to our campsite was officially closed due to the high winds. It had probably been closed during our journey up, but unless you asked someone you wouldn’t know as there was no signage and the supposed 200 park rangers were nowhere to be seen. We gathered that they wouldn’t actually stop us from walking it, but that it wasn’t recommended. Our new friends were experienced walking in the area and decided that apart from one short section where you could be blown over the escarpment, it wasn’t too dangerous. We decided it couldn’t be any worse than the trip up and we’d survived that! We also met a family from Santiago who were on a day trip and were also concerned about getting back as they had young children, so we walked back in convoy with Guillermo at the front and me at the back, ready to grab any kids who might be picked up by the wind and hurled over the edge. We made it through this section fine, and the very relieved family continued on alone.
The rest of the walk back down was fairly uneventful, and as we exited the valley, the rain stopped and the wind died down. It was 9pm by the time we got back to our campsite, hungry, tired and very relieved. We prepared our dinner and turned in for the night. At 1am we both awoke to the sound of roaring wind sweeping down the valleys. It was howling through the trees, flapping the tent around with unbelievable strength that we later found out was 90km/h. Several times we were sure the tent was going to fly off, or at least that a pole was going to snap. Thankfully the tent held, largely due to our protected position and all the rocks we had placed around it to hold the fly down.
We awoke and cooked breakfast, relieved to find the wind had stopped and the sun was out. This was to be a simple day .. all we had to do was pack up our gear, catch a minibus back to the park entrance at Guardia Laguna Amarga, then a bus to Pudeto, and then a catamaran to Paine Grande. This went smoothly enough, and while we waited for the minibus we got talking to Sean and Morelia, the couple who had camped next to us. We found out that they both worked at Flight Centre, and knew our good friend Paul very well. What a small world!
We arrived at Pudeto to catch the catarmaran, and as we had some time to spare we sat and had a coffee. As the people unloaded from the incoming catamaran, we spied some familiar faces – Pete, Karin and Paul our Navimag buddies! Of course we knew they were somewhere up here, but the chance of running into them were pretty slim, yet here they were. They had completed most of the circuit, but experienced some atrocious weather so were calling it a day. We had experienced one day of bad weather, but apparently it was only the tail-end of the system and they’d had many more before it. We quickly exchanged stories and they gave us some advice on where to camp at Paine Grande, and we boarded the boat to continue.
Boarding the boat was a challenge. The winds were still very strong and gusty, and at one stage Michelle had to grab onto the railing while a gust passed. We piled out backpacks on the luggage pile, and the boat pulled away. The crossing was pretty choppy, but the crowded boat handled it pretty well.
On arriving at Paine Grande it was almost empty. Apparently the day before the boats had not run due to the wind, so people had been trapped there, including day trippers with no overnight gear. They had all had to sleep on the floor in the refugio. Therefore most people had left on the previous boat out. With no trees for protection, we put up our tent close to the hill as advised to avoid the wind. With more time to put the tent up and our superior location we smugly watched our tent barely flap while others blew all over the place. The downside of our camping spot was that it was in a dirt patch, not on the grass. This fine dirt would get into everything over the next few days, but we considered it a fair price to pay for keeping our tent attached to the ground – although we never did experience strong winds like the first night again.
We cooked our dinner and had a quite beer in the bar, planning our next two days of heavy trekking.
We awoke on day 3 to calm but overcast weather and cooked our breakfast in the camp’s mess room. This is a bit of a luxury for a campsite as it protects you from the elements, but it was quite small and crowded. After breakfast we prepared for our 21km day and set out at about noon – a bit later than we really should have since we had about 9 hours walking ahead of us, but we were getting used to these days that go until 11pm.
The first part of the walk to Campo Italiano was fairly flat and easy, and we knocked the 7.6km over in about 2 hours. We walked through one of the areas worst hit by a bushfire in December 2011 which was accidentally lit by a camper. This fire destroyed 75 sq km of bush and caused the entire park to be evacuated. Sadly these trees are not like Australian ones that use fire as part of their cycle – these ones will take a long time to recover. It was on this stretch that we met Lisa, a Canadian who has been living in Santiago. We walked with her for a while and she and Michelle compared blisters (hers were MUCH worse!).
Campo Italiano along with Campo Britanico are two of the “free” camps, meaning they are owned and run by the parks service and do not require an additional fee to camp at. I don’t like to use the word free as I consider their use has been paid for in the $40 entrance fee. Unfortunately they have both been closed for months due to some issues with the toilets, which means there is nowhere to camp in the French Valley. This puts huge pressure on the surrounding privately run sites at Paine Grande and Los Cuernos and makes for a big day for anyone attempting the French Valley. The suspicious part of me wonders if the operators of the private sites have anything to do with the closing of the free ones.
From here, the 3.5km stretch to the Mirador (viewpoint) looked like it would be easy, but the terrain became quite steep and rocky (again). Fortunately the weather had improved to quite lovely conditions, with no wind and blue skies with just enough wispy cloud to make it interesting. We came to a point where we had an amazing view of the glacier and surrounding mountains, and rested while we enjoyed the visage. Since it was almost 4pm Michelle suggested that we head back thinking this was probably as good as it gets and we did have another 4 hours of walking to get back from here. But we had heard that the view from the actual Mirador was absolutely amazing and it was only another hour, so I decided I was going to continue. With a combination of competitiveness and stubborness Michelle decided to continued on too rather than return on her own. Shortly after, we were lucky enough to watch an avalanche in action on the other side of the valley where an enormous amount of snow plummetted down the mountain.
Click above to play video
The last stretch was only 45 minutes, but it seemed longer. Our ankles and feet were getting sore from the constant walking on the uneven rocky terrain – full hiking boots would have been more appropriate than our all-purpose walking shoes, we just didn’t have space for them on this trip. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with the most amazing 360 degree panorama looking up and down the valley, across to the glacier, and at the sheer granite peaks behind us. It was well worth the effort!
The return trip was mostly downhill but it was still hard going with the rocky terrain. Michelle showed her typical increase in speed when on the home stretch – like a horse that knows it’s almost home! When we returned to camp we continued what was becoming a tradition and had a couple of Patagonia Ale’s with some people we had met in Punta Arenas. It’s quite amazing how often you run into the same people in Patagonia.
For our last day of trekking we were heading along to Glacier Grey, a 22km round trip. We set off in calm, sunny weather at about 10:30am through largely flat terrain until we reached Laguna Los Pasos. This small lake was spectacularly flat with a perfect reflection of the rocks behind it and the sky.
We continued on until we came to Lago Gray and the first signs of the coming glacier – huge chunks of ice floating in the lake. Trekking on a trail that hugged the lake we kept thinking the Glacier would be visible just around the corner, but it eluded us for longer than seemed possible. Finally the top of the glacier became visible over the hills, and then as we climbed over a rise it was revealed in all its glory!
We seized the photo opportunity along with everyone else, and perched outselves on a rock to admire the magical view for some time before resuming our journey. The glacier seemed so close, so we figured we didn’t have too much further to go. Sadly we walked through more areas devestated by the 2011 fire. There were lots of ups and downs, and we kept catching sight of the glacier, but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer! Finally after climbing down some very steep rocks, we descended to Refugio Grey where we indulged in one of their famous hot sandwiches for lunch. It was turning out to be a spectacular warm day of 23 degrees, something we hadn’t experienced for a while.
After lunch we headed down to “the beach” where the glacier could be viewed from lake level. I scooped some ice from the lake and we tasted the pure glacial water and wondered just how long it had spent in ice form. Michelle wished she had a gin and tonic to complete the picture.
Although the trip back was long, with a steep climb from Refugio Grey, the afternoon light was just incredible. The mountains lit up with golden hues and the big wide blue skies stretched out before us. The best part of starting late each day is that we often had the trailes to ourselves by the late afternoon. We got back to camp at around 8pm, exhausted but buzzing from another amazing day. We were treated to another spectacular evening watching the sun set behind the mountains as we sipped our cold Patagonia Ales.
We were sad but also relieved to be packing up our campsite and heading back to “civilization”. It had been an amazing time, but we had long given up queueing for the showers and were looking forward to being clean again, eating fresh food and sleeping on a mattress. The boat wasn’t departing until 12:30 so we had time to pack up our campsite at a leisurely pace. The boat trip was much calmer this time, and we happily piled ourselves onto the bus for the return trip to Puerto Natales.
There are more extreme ways to walk the Torres, but For two city dwellers with not a lot of trekking experience we were pleased with how we’d pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones. We are sure that this won’t be the last trekking we do on this trip.
Click above to play video