Torres del Paine in Chile is so fantastic that it is even mentioned in the Rough Guide to Argentina book as one of the highlights for that country…just for being close to it. The national park, which is also on the cover of the Rough Guide to Chile book we’ve been carrying the last couple months, is where we’re heading next. We bussed down from El Calafate in Argentina, crossing the border back into Chile and arriving in Puerto Natales, the closest town. Puerto Natales itself is a bit rundown looking but fairly nice, with some good cafes and restaurants. We spent a day stocking up on everything we’d need to go trekking in the park – renting tents and sleeping bags (there are some refugios in the park but they were booked out since ages..we’re getting dangerously close to high-season) and buying pasta, porrige, bread and lots of dried fruit and nuts. Unlike the 10-day trek we did in Nepal a while back there are no tea-houses, porters or people serving dal-bhat, so a lot more carrying to do. My 75-litre backpack was nearly full with just the two thick sleeping bags and the tent. Water is drinkable directly from the streams everywhere in the park though, so no need to bring, filter, treat or boil which is handy.
We got a bus to the park in the morning, and crossed turquoise Lago Pehoe on a ferry to get to the trail-head for the five-day W trek. It is named W for the shape of the route – in and out of three separate valleys between the mountains. The ferry crossing served us some stunning views towards the granite Cuernos del Paine massif – 2000-3000 meter high peaks, strangely shaped and multi-coloured from different layers of rock, the harder layers on top shaping how the lower layers are eroded. A nice introduction to the scenery of the park – the five days would be nearly uninterrupted with one incredible view after another…probably the most sustained sensory overload of any place we’ve ever been.
The western of the three W legs leads to lake Grey and the glacier of the same name – up from lake Pehoe with views back towards its turquoise waters, crossing a wind-swept pass with lots of tilted bonsai-shaped Lenga and Antarctic beech trees fighting the elements. We had lunch looking down towards Lago Grey far below, watching little blue icebergs float around on the surface. A while later along the trail the first views towards the Grey glacier opened up, from a second windswept pass. There was quite a bit of climbing on the way with the tents and all the gear, but the views more than made up for it.
The Grey campsite was right by the lake shore, on a sheltered beach close to the glacier but out of view. Bits of millenia-old ice were lying on the beach, with bigger icebergs further out – we’d hear the odd roar from the glacier letting another block loose while we rigged up our tents and started cooking. Great appetite from the trekking!
In the evening we walked a bit further, to a viewpoint closer to the glacier. With the evening light dancing across the cliffs, ice and water, and blue jagged mountains peaks towering behind the glacier…huge amazing ice sculptures floating on the lake just in front of us, this is one of the most stunning views I have ever laid my eyes on.
The sun sets slowly down here at 51 degrees south – it was still light at 9pm, and the real sunset colours came out closer to 10pm. We watched some of the last rays filter through the blue ice floating on the lake, while sitting on the cliffs waiting for the final show of the day.
The second day we took another long look at the glacier before starting to backtrack to the turquoise Lago Pehoe where we had started. From there we continued east, following the dark blue Lago Skottsberg towards the central valley – Valle Frances. The campsite here was free and a little more basic – toilets but no showers or water, but there was a river nearby to fill up the bottles with fresh drinkable glacier water. This day was a bit of a hard slog – longer than the first and carrying the full gear the whole way. The next day would be easier – just a return trip up the valley with only the daypack to bring.
The third day we climbed up Valle Frances, as far as the snowline. The valley lies right in the center of the Torres del Paine mountains, the black-capped Cuernos massif on one side and the even higher Paine Grande standing guard on the other, steep and with glaciers that kept loosing big blocks in avalanches down the side throughout the day. The walk was stunning – Lenga forest at the base of the valley and more and more tormented looking trees the higher we climbed, views to the mountains above and turquoise lakes below. At 900 meters altitude the path ended by a large rock looking down over the green valley – perfect spot for lunch. When we got back we packed up the tents and moved camp to the next campsite two hours away to shorten the next day. The walk led down by another lake – turquoise like Pehoe – this one named Nordenskjöld (lots of Swedes here exploring back in the day) with a lovely black-and-white pebble beach.
Day four the big bags were starting to get a little lighter with most of the food eaten. We continued along Lago Nordenskjöld before branching off towards the third valley – Torres – after passing a higher darker lake on a windswept plain. It was quite cloudy this day but that’s not a bad thing as the landscape was more open and barren here – your skin burns easy in the deep south, even with factor-50 sunscreen on…from the first time we broke the atmosphere (at least with the ozone-issue we banned the gases as soon as we found out…with the CO2 climate-issue we’ve barely gotten as far as talking of maybe cutting down..slowly).
We set up our tents in the Torres camp, from where it would be possible to climb up to a viewpoint of the famous granite towers the park is named after in the morning. The classic way to do it is to be up there for sunrise, red morning light hitting the rock, but it had been cloudy in the evening so we decided to sleep a bit more. Edel woke me at 5am (not an easy feat) when it was already light but it was raining a little so the girls decided to stay and sleep. I had a look at the day while rubbing the sleep from my eyes and decided to try – wasn’t sure the climb would be worth it with the clouds and rain but it was nice to be up at dawn when the forest was waking up. It stopped raining about an hour later, soon after I left the forest and started making my way the 900 meters up towards the towers. I met one or two people coming down from the sunrise climb – saying they had seen practically nothing, but once I got up it had cleared enough for the famous vertical rock pinnacles to jump in and out of the clouds and occasionally rays of sunlight to wander across the granite surface. It was crazy windy at the viewpoint, and I hid behind a big boulder, eating my sandwich and jumping out to snap another photo whenever the light was good.
I was back down from the towers again at 9am, just as Edel was waking up, and we packed up to do the final slog up the hill to leave the valley, exit the park and find a bus back to Puerto Natales. Back in town a few hours later we handed in an enormous bag of laundry, had some well needed showers and went out for a great post-trek dinner. It is probably the only time ever that I’ll manage a full Argentinian-sized steak plus starter and dessert!