‘Its a long way to go for a walk’ I said to my pal as we settled down into our economy airline seats for the overnight flight to San Paulo, Brazil – he smiled agreement. During the next two weeks we became entranced by the Torres del Paine National Park, for a while it became our paradise away from work and on the way back Gavin (henceforth ‘Gav’) retorted that he was ‘supremely glad we’d made the effort’.
I couldn’t agree more - the landscapes we encountered were unlike any other that I had seen – the views had a sharp blue quality that was beautiful and striking, and despite low moments caused by unexpected crowds and over attentive rangers the highs were truly high with vistas that rivalled any in the mountain ranges of the world.
And access to these delights is surprisingly easy, with a well developed transport infrastructure the independent traveller can make the trip with a high degree of predictability, we arrived at the start of our walk about three hours later than planned, after two days travelling – the delay being due to some airport shenanigans at Santiago.
It was 6pm at the CONAF Administration centre in the Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile, we got off the bus and shouldered our packs for the hour long walk to our first campsite, Campamento Las Carretas. The weather was perfect and around the back of the low buildings a stunning view awaited us – fields of tall yellow grass stretched out into the distance leading the eye to the high mountains beyond.
The mountains rise abruptly out of the plain here and create some amazing backdrops, the Torres Del Paine massif itself is made up of jagged, contorted peaks set down in layers of colour countless years ago then honed into beautiful sculptures by wind and rain.
The classic circuit of the park is called the ‘O’ and skirts the edge of the massif with excursions into its heart at the best bits, it incorporates the ‘W’ which is the shorter route that the majority of visitors do, the ‘W’ includes the key highlights of the park including the granite Towers that give it its name, Valle Frances and Glacier Grey. We were ‘doing the O’ but taking advice from the Cicerone guidebook we were starting at the CONAF centre about four hours from either route, so our route became the ‘O with a dog-leg’.
The views on that dog-leg are amazing, a fantastic introduction to what was to come, and odd that most people don’t experience that section.
Walking the Dog-leg
It took us just over an hour to reach Campamento Las Carretas, the walking was easy in the evening sunshine, and the open plain to our left gave way to high, snow-clad mountains in the distance. The campsite here is unmanned and very basic, the ‘pitches’ are no more than flattish areas either side of the track. There’s a basic toilet – which was a nightmare – and a three sided shed for cooking in.
Here we got our first taste of the rules for camping in the park. After a large damaging fire the previous year the ‘W’ section of the park is now tightly controlled by the authorities, you must cook in one of the sheds provided, which get very crowded and are turning into pig-stys. The one at Las Carrettas faced into the hillside so even during a pleasant evening it got murky inside very quickly!
We took water from a side stream which we treated, and cooked up our first meal.
Back at our tents the evening was enjoyable again – a few more tents had turned up and settled on questionable pitches – we watched the stars come out – which was a treat – the Milky Way like I’d only ever seen it a few times in my lifetime. The evening was crystal clear and the overnight temperature dropped to 2C.
The next morning brought with it ideal walking conditions – it really couldn’t have been more perfect – the sun’s threat muted by low cumulus, producing warm and sunny conditions without the fierce heat. We hiked the three hours to Refuge Paine Grande taking masses of photos. The route undulates gently so it was no effort at all, despite our packing six days food and full backpacking loads.
We arrived at Refuge Paine Grande about noon, had our lunch and dried the tents out. Weather still fantastic, there’s a nice open campsite at Refuge Paine Grande which we would have stayed at our first night had we not been delayed – this is what we’d recommend others to do.
The ‘W’ section
We were now on the two main routes, not quite at one end of the ‘W’ but near enough for us to complete most of it before continuing on the ‘O’. The ‘W’ section contains the notable highlights of the park and so attracts the most visitors, it takes three or four days to complete, which makes it very attractive, although getting to and from the park takes time and therefore its much more than a ‘long weekend’ commitment.
At 3.20 we crossed the suspension bridge into Campamento Italiano, I thought there was still plenty of time to hike up Valley France to Campamento Brittanico, but to my disappointment the campsite there was closed. I enquired why at the ranger station and was told that it was because there wasn’t a ranger available – when I said that I didn’t need a ranger it didn’t go down well. I reluctantly setup camp, Gav was glad – he hadn’t fancied the hike up the valley anyway.
Campamento Italiano is in a woodland setting with the Torres del Paine (TDP) cooking shed, composting toilets on stilts and no showers or washing facilities. Water is collected from the river, and you can’t see the sky for the woods. It’s a big popular site, and all the less pleasant for that.
We were visited by two researching rangers who were interviewing campers, asking them to recite the rules printed on the reverse of the park entry document. I spotted this ahead of time and had a quick cramming session before they got to us. Remarkably they didn’t detect my clumsy effort and were very impressed that I knew most of them. Our ticket was stamped and we remained official.
Bedded down at 9.30pm, overnight it was much warmer – about 9C. The evening was characterised by loud cracking which sounded like thunder – in a cloudless sky?
We packed just the gear we needed for the excursion up Valley Frances, which is the first real climb of the trek – only a matter of hours though. The source of the cracking noise became clear – avalanching on the Paine Grande, at each crack we scanned the mountain – occasionally seeing wisps of snow plunging down a face or gully – but the mountain is a long way from the path and these falls were hard to find.
We’d left the camp at 8.30 and arrived at camp Brittanico at about 10.45. Brittanico is in trees again and I was glad we had stayed in the valley, it was tricky to find a decent pitch even with no-one else there.
Onward then to the main event – the lookout in the heart of the Valle Frances cirque, towers rising all around – a bright day to remember – the views from the lookout are fantastic. No-where better for lunch, we lingered quite a while before tackling the trip back down. The descent was impressive too, we got to see the views the other way, of lakes and distant mountains.
I also managed a proper wash and shave half an hour from the lookout, taking water from a stream that crossed the path, I was dry in minutes from the sunshine.
The return trip to the campsite took an hour and a half - we took our tents down and packed up – away by about 2pm on the 2 hr trip to Refuge Cuernos, a charming refuge beside Lake Nordenskjold and below the magnificent cliffs of Monte Almirante Nieto.
The views along the lake as we made our way to Cuernos were superb as well, the surrounding hills fold into the water like ruffled blankets, a stark contrast to the pale green glacier meltwater that fills the lakes. A very enjoyable day of mixed walking and backpacking, rounded off with a nice open campsite. At Cuernos the camping is on raised platforms because the ground is too uneven, some are in the open, but others are in trees, we arrived early enough to get an open pitch.
The next day was a Sunday and we left camp about 8.40am and made the initially undulating trek and then the climb to Refuge Chileno where we stopped for a short lunch of cereal bars, nuts and dried fruit before making the 1 hour climb through trees to Capamento Torres – so called because its the place to camp if you want to see the Towers at dawn – this is important because for ten or fifteen minutes as the sun comes up the towers glow bright orange as the light hits them. Camping at Torres enables you to make the one hour hike up to Mirador lake, arriving before dawn in time to see the spectacle.
Campamento Torres is in the trees but as it got dark we hiked 5 minutes back up the trail and sat for a while – the sky was crystal clear, we could see the circuit of mountains gradually silhouette, and an incredibly bright moon appear above the horizon, accompanied by bright stars and planets.
Bed at 9pm, alarm set for 6.00am, by 6.20 we were on the trail by headtorch with lots of others ahead and behind. We got to the Mirador lake slightly ahead of time and found our spot, even in semi darkness the towers are impressive – there were people scattered across the rocks waiting expectantly. Some had brought bedding – most breakfast, all had cameras, we waited.
The spectacle is indeed worth getting up for, as day breaks the towers start to glow faintly – then brightly – the depth of the glow makes the photos seem unreal, a thousand photos are taken in ten minutes, then its over.
We stayed a while at this highlight of the trip, and then made our way back to Campamento Torres. We had breakfast and packed up. The trail retraces our valley walk and then continues down to the Hotel des Torres, where we arrived at 12.30. This is the other end of the ‘W’, and the starting point for so many other visitors to the park. Most start here and follow the route we had taken in reverse. The Hotel is big, bright and luxurious looking – its not the experience we wanted, so after an ice cream (well!) we headed off to continue the ‘O’ circuit.
The ‘O’ Circuit
It was 4 hours walking to Campamento Seron along 4wd tracks and through woodpecker woods until the trail opens out to a magnificent view down the valley. Today was hot.
Not counting the first evening this was day 4 for us – Gav discovered that his rucksack had hipbelt pockets – which made a big difference to him – he’s a remarkable man.
We arrived at a windy Campamento Seron at around 4.30 – it was a revelation – the camping area was an open field and there was no TDP shed for us to cook unpleasantly in – we could cook on picnic tables, awesome. We had come from crowded campsites with no views and very unsatisfactory cooking arrangements to a relative paradise – it was said there was a shower but I could only find a pipe that squirted cool water – but I was very happy. By evening the wind had died down and we settled down to an excellent meal.
The mosquitos flew in for supper as soon as the wind had dropped, this was the only downer, we had chosen March for our trip because it was towards the end of the Chilean summer and the mosquitos and tourists were supposed to be scarce. We had headnets but no repellents and I was glad of my softshell pants – I know from experience that mossies can bite through thinner trousers – teamed with a down jacket it was a good combo.
A few hours later the temperature had dropped again and the mosquitos with it – they hadn’t spoiled the party.
It was here that we met our companions for the rest of the tour, fourteen Irish hikers were being guided round the route, with porters taking their gear between campsites, they would shadow us for the rest of the walk – and we bumped into them days after we’d finished in Puerto Natales.
There was also Adam & Nicole from the US and Craig & Linda from New Zealand. Although not walking together our paths were to cross quite a bit between Seron and the end. The requirement to only use recognised campsites ensured our friendship.
The Chef at Seron had a pet Carancho – a rather large bird of prey which perched on a post outside his kitchen. We all rushed very carefully to take pictures until we realised it wasn’t going anywhere. Washed clothes, shaved and joined the human race again.
The next day we trekked to Refuge Dickson – we had packed 6 days food but it looked like we would take 8 days on the circuit- plan B had always been to supplement our packed food with that available from the refuges and campsites on the way – so we decided to eat at the refuge that night.
The trek was six hours, alongside and above Rio Paine and Lago Paine, the weather clouded over towards the end – we arrived at 3pm. At 2.30 we sighted the refuge and campsite – it lies on a spit of land jutting out into Lago Dickson, surrounded by mountains its a fabulously picturesque spot.
By 4pm it was raining – but we already had the tents up, so no sweat. The showers were excellent – hot, or warmish I suppose – the only downside being the access – you have to get undressed outside (that is standing on the grass) before leaping into the small square cubicle. The same performance to get out – you can’t take your clothes in because there’s nowhere to put them. Still, we were beyond embarrassment. We enjoyed a great meal at the refuge, joined by plenty of other travellers.
Today was night 6, Gav discovered that his tent had internal storage pockets.
Next day was Wednesday, a short walk beckoned, we set off at 9.30 through woods and skies filled with clouds, we even had rain momentarily. But the walking was pleasant enough and we reached the Perros Glacier at around 1pm. The path passes close to a moraine dam opposite the glacier and we climbed onto it and traversed its length getting a great view of the glacier. Small fry though, compared to many of the others in the park.
15 minutes later we arrived at another wooded camp – Campamento Perros – with the cloud now blocking the sun’s heat we found the site to be very cold. Perros must have a reputation as a cold site because a makeshift shelter had been built – yurt shaped – from polythene, wood, string and corrugated iron. Inside were makeshift tables but best of all a wood burning stove. It took us a while to realise it was there but when we wandered in that evening we stayed put till it was time for bed.
The next day would be the crossing of the John Gardner Pass, the highest and toughest day on the route. The guide suggests stopping at Campamento Passo on the other side but Gav decided he wanted to try and reach Refuge Grey, on paper a ten hour trip – so an early start was planned.
We set off at first light, about 7.45am. The weather was the worst it had been, wet and cold, and we made the long climb to the pass. The wind was quite fierce and it meant there was no time to stop and savour the moment – nor were there any views to admire on the other side – we could see our side of Glacier Grey but not the expanse of ice you can see on a clear day.
The descent is down a well worn and potentially treacherous path through woods, in the rain its about getting the job done – we arrived at Campamento Torres around 12.30 and sheltered in the cooking shed with other trekkers, including the porters for the Irish contingent. We were wet and were glad we were moving on, a marginal campsite can look good in sunshine but decidedly uninviting in the rain – Campamento Torres was indeed uninviting!
The remaining trek to Refuge Grey was 5 hours on paper but just three in practice, there was no stopping for photographs or admiring the views as the bad weather remained with us for the rest of the hike. It only began to brighten up when we finally reached Refuge Grey and set up camp. Gav went for a shower and reported back that they were cold – but the women’s seemed to be hot. I had a fantastic shower in the women’s washroom – the only thing missing was indeed the women!
After a good meal in the refuge that night there only remained half a days walking back to Refuge Paine Grande and the catamaran out of the park – the weather had cleared up and we got some great shots of Glacier Grey as we walked along the edge of the lake. We were tempted to stay a few more days in the park but we needed more food and hadn’t been in contact with home for over a week – so we slipped back to Puerto Natales to spend the remainder of our time before the flight home.
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