02.15.2013 - 02.18.2013
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When I decided to fly down to Punta Arenas to get to Patagonia before it got too cold, I initially second guessed myself. However, I am glad I did. The weather in Patagonia is like nothing I have experienced before and I would not want to be trying to hike here in 2 weeks or a month! I went on a 4 day 3 night “trek” to Torres Del Paine. This is touted as one of the must see destinations in South America up there with Macchu Picchu and Rio De Janiero. As with all of my travels this far, it was not what I expected, did not go as planned but did work out in the end. Overall, Torres is an incredible place and despite the hardship of the trek, I think spending some real time in the park allowed me to appreciate it more. I did the famous W circuit but if I had to do it over again I would’ve extended it 2 days to spend more time at the glacier and walk up the to the pass with views of the icefield.
Torres Del Paine rises up 1-2 miles out of the plains in dramatic fashion and behind this wall is the southern icefield, 3rd largest in the world behing Greenland and Antactica. It is a land of mountains, glaciers, animals, and unique weather.
Day 1 –Puerto Natales to the Torres (9 miles, 2500 ft vertical)
We arrived from Puerto Natales around 10 AM and the weather was overcast and I couldn’t see much. Being a tourist zone, the people I met changed almost completely to Dutch, German, Canadian, US, and Australian with occasional summer vacationers from Santiago. We started on the trail with some American women and within 15 minutes it started sprinkling. We ascended out of the plain into a steep valley and it began to pour. The winds picked up and I had to put my poncho and waterproof pants on.
It was a soggy walk to our shelter for the night, a tent at Chileno refugio.
Once there, we all dried gear off and fortunately the rain stopped. This brightened our mood a bit and we set off to the Torres viewpoint. The soggy trail took us through an interesting forest, one of the few that I have seen in South America thus far. The clouds started to part leaving us a great view of snowcapped mountains.
I was surprised by this being summer and all! By the time we reached the viewpoint, it was clear and beautiful. I got a chance to see the most famous attraction of the park where others just saw clouds.
Day 2 – Refugio Chileno to Refugio Los Cuernos (6 miles, -1000 ft vertical)
The morning started off brilliant and tracing our steps out of the valley we were able to see the views that were rained in yesterday morning. For the second half of the hike, we paralleled the turquoise glacial Lake Nordenskjold, massive and surrounded by grassland hills with snowcapped peaks in the distance. It was like Carribean meets Canadian Rockies.
I even saw 2 more condors. Eventually the formation Los Cuernos came into view and then a massive glaciated peak that went into the clouds.
We arrived to the second campsite at 2 PM and although the weather was decent we decided it was too far to see the next attraction and get back for dinner. This shelter was at the base of the towering Los Cuernos formation.
The rest of the day was R&R, talking to the other hikers and enjoying the lakeshore. Occasionally, a rumble could be heard which was a nearby glacier calving or breaking off. Dinner was scarce (mushroom soup and shephard’s pie). My friend and I decided for simplicity purpose to buy the breakfasts and dinners from the refugios (shelters) and rent the tents so we did not have to carry them in. This was a dragonfly that landed on the tent.
Day 3 – Los Cuernos & Valle Frances, to Refugio Paine Grande (15 miles+, +/- 1500 ft+ vertical)
Day 3 of the hike was hyped as a beautiful day walking among hanging glaciers. Breakfast at the refugio was beautiful, a rainbow formed at sunrise and stayed with us for an hour and a half into the hike!
However, it was a sign of bad weather. By the time we reached the Frances Valley, clouds and dark sky enveloped us and light mist/rain was falling. With doubts of whether it was worth it, we dropped our packs off and decided to try to hike 5 hours out and back through the valley. They trail was wet, rocky, and rough. We eventually saw a bit of the glacier but the peaks stayed hidden in the clouds. The wind really started whipping at the first viewpoint and as we got higher, the rain turned to sleet pellets.
It got really painful when pellets hit your face at 50 MPH! There was some view at the final viewpoint but the wind was so strong and it was so cold, we had to turn back quickly.
After doubling back, it was another 5 miles to the shelter where we stayed the night. Overall, this was a bit of a down moment in the trek as the longest hike lead to the smallest rewards. However, the shelter was real nice and we stayed inside so it was nice to have a bed and heat. Before dinner things cleared a bit and I took a short walk to a nearby viewpoint which turned out to be spectacular in the late evening sun.
Dinner too was much better here and so I felt nourished. After playing a dice game with some fellow hikers it was off to bed for another early start tomorrow.
Day 4 Refugio Paine Grande to Mirador Grey (6 miles)
Due to my tight schedule the following day, my friend and I decided to do a shorter hike on day 4 and catch the 12:30 ferry to the 1:00 bus to get back to Puerto Natales at 4 PM. We left our packs at the refugio and hiked to the Lago Grey and Grey Glacier lookout. The theme of the day … WIND! We started the hike against the wind in a narrow canyon/wind tunnel. After about 45 minutes, we got to a small lake where the wind was so extreme I could barely stand.
It was probably gusting to 70 MPH! After all of the abuse I had taken, I actually enjoyed the wind today and just the experience of the extreme weather and the uniqueness of this place. The wind got even more powerful once we got to the lookout (mirador). I had trouble holding my camera steadytaking pictures and on the way out the wind actually blew me uphill (no effort required just keep the feet on the ground!). The glacier was beautiful and the lake had deep blue icebergs in it.
We returned to the refugio at 11 and then waited for the ferry out at 12:30. The flags of Chile and Patagonia were blowing and the lake was choppy.
At the dock there were over 50 people waiting to board the boat. The boat had not yet arrived when a park ranger notified us that the boat would NOT be coming due to weather! He gave us no advanced warning and no guarantee that the 6:30 boat would come either. After the initial frustration wore off, we quickly decided to make the 11 mile hike out. It was the only way to guarantee being back in Puerto Natales by nightfall.
Bonus hike – Refugio Paine Grande to Administration (11 miles)
Only about a dozen of us made the trek. My friend and I walked quickly with a couple from Switzerland and we ran into a Polish and German guy doing the same on the way. It was relatively flat but the wind would occasionally blow us off balance a bit. The hike took what felt like forever … 4 hours. It felt like Lord of the rings or something … we were walking in a golden field with snowcapped mountains in the distance and an occasional lake or river.
We seemed to walk forever but nothing really got closer. Finally, exhausted we arrived to the Administration where a 6:30 bus would be there to pick us up. It was 4:30 and a few people had 8 PM bus tickets and one woman from Canada had a 9PM cruise departure. Somehow, she managed to negotiate with some park officials and got someone to take 6 of us in a van to Puerto Natales. By then, there were 10 or 11 people though and so we had to split up based on urgency. I was in the 6 to take the van and my friend took the bus at 6:30. When we met up later for a victory meal at brick oven pizza place later that night, he told me the buses were empty and so all of those people back at the Paine Grande refugio were stranded there an extra night!
So, there you have it, a 50 mile 4 day trek through some of the craziest weather and spectacular scenery anywhere. No joke, I now have a cold!